41st Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Thursday May 30, “Splintered: The History, Structure, and Conservation of American Scaleboard Bindings” by Renée Wolcott

After long, long neglect, the humble American scaleboard binding has seen a surge of interest in the last few years. Two articles feature scaleboard bindings in the recently published compilation Suave Mechanicals, Volume 1, edited by Julia Miller (Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, volume 1. ed. Julia Miller. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2013. http://www.legacy-press.com). Miller herself presents the results of her survey of 858 scaleboard bindings in North American collections. John Townsend reports on a study of six copies of the same 1715 prayer book in scaleboard bindings.
Wolcott’s investigation neatly dovetails with and enriches those studies. Like Miller, and following methodology made popular by Nickolas Pickwoad, the basis of her work is a minute examination and recording of material and structural details. She examined 85 scaleboard bindings in the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Winterthur library.
Scaleboard is a thin (as little at one millimeter thick) planed wood used as the boards on popular American colonial publications from around the mid seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. These bindings, says Wolcott, are the product of a four hundred years of streamlining, simplifying, and cost reduction in bookbinding. Although the roots of this binding tradition can be traced to the European origins of the Colonists, the scaleboard binding is singularly American.
The texts so bound are usually popular subjects: sermons, religious tracts, pamphlets, hymns or songbooks, and especially in the later end of their popularity, primers and other basic textbooks. The audience for these books are churchgoers, parents, schoolchildren—these were the books, Wolcott explained, for the 99 per cent. These bindings have not been collected or treasured; the fact that they exist in library collections is because someone selected the text as worth keeping.
In addition to the eponymous scaleboard, the bindings are characterized by cheap sewing—typically stabbed with tawed, leather, or cloth thongs, or sewn on sunk cords—with very little fit and finish. The slips from the thongs attach to the boards by the simple expedient of pasting them down on the outside (under the leather) or the inside of the boards (under the pastedown—if there is one).  The scaleboard binding is to the binding tradition, Wolcott asserts, what the Yugo is to the history of the automobile: basic, affordable, stripped down function—although not particularly durable function.
When looking for scaleboard bindings, first think small. Rarely are these bindings larger than octavo size. Gary Frost, commenting after Wolcott’s talk, suspects the size limit is related to the limitations of the tools used to make the boards—but the manufacture and production of scaleboard is a topic for further investigation. (Frost also mentioned observing scaleboards cut with hand shears, not with boardsheers or similar machines or jigs.) Scaleboard bindings are highly prone to damage—and that can make them easy to identify. Often the wood is visible through worn cover material. These books tend to be lighter weight than books made with pasteboard or fiberboard, and a gentle tap gives a hollow wood tone instead of a dull thud.
Most of the early imprints in scaleboard bindings before 1760 are from Boston. Over time the place of publication spreads out along the Eastern seaboard as far as Vermont in the north and Pennsylvania in the south. At least one binding Wolcott reviewed gives the place of publication simply as “New England.”
Of the 85 bindings Wolcott recorded, 55% were stabbed with two strips of tawed skin or leather; 44% were sewn through the fold, on recessed cords. She showed some fascinating images of books that had been notched for sewing on recessed cords, whether they eventually were sewn that way or not. Some books were notched but the leaf attachment was stabbed thongs, others were sewn on sunk cords using some but not all the notches. Yet another had evidence of temporary side stitching—and the notches. The evidence suggests that the text blocks were printed, folded, and sold pre-notched to others who might or might not use the notching for their binding. A minority, 13 bindings, were sewn on raised cords.
Endsheets for these bindings tend to the minimalist. Some books have none. Some, usually earlier books, use printer’s waste to form a simple pastedown that may be just a flange of a couple inches or may extend across the width of the board.  Later books were more likely to have blank paper for endsheets.
The boards on all but five examples in Wolcott’s study have the grain running horizontally. Where the grain is vertical, it has a strong tendency to split with use.  Wolcott looked carefully at the wood, where it was exposed, for evidence of where on the tree truck it was cut from. Most of the boards—71 bindings—were from logs that were split and radially cut. Others were cut tangential to the wood grain; boards cut this way tend to warp. (Trust me—what you really need here are to see Wolcott’s diagrams; look for them in the BPG Annual postprint.) The variation suggests a trade and working techniques that were not standardized.
There has been some speculation about the types of wood used for scaleboard and assumptions that the usual suspects—oak, beech, and the like—were used. Wolcott partnered with a botanist at Winterthur, Henry Alden, who analyzed the wood on some of the examples she identified. They were surprised to find nine examples of ash boards. Ash is a hardwood that we currently associate with baseball bats; in colonial times it would be used for furniture and such like, but it is not normally associated with bookbinding.
The earlier bindings, up to around 1790, tend to be covered in full leather. Later bindings typically have a quarter-leather spine and paper sides. Wolcott showed several typical examples and variations. The leather is often thick and crude, with knife gouges on the flesh side that have not been smoothed out and turn-ins that are rough and uneven. Decoration, if there is any, is usually limited to some simple blind-tooled single or double fillet lines. One Germantown binding with greater pretentions to its medieval wooden-board predecessors had straps and clasps on the fore edge.
After 1790 the books examined are quarter-bound leather. Many have sides of blue paper. A few have decorated (stencil, marbled, or Dutch-gilt) paper; one has paper printed with the title page. Wolcott showed an example of a full-paper binding with a quarter-leather spine evident under the paper. Another example was covered over in coarse canvas. Music books, printed landscape, usually had a thick leather over wrapper, probably added by the owner for extra protection.
The combination of inherent weakness of structure and popular, frequently used texts means that repairs abound on these bindings. Often the thongs attaching the text block breaks. Wolcott showed examples of repairs involving straight pins, whip stitching of leaves or sections, and oversewing that encompassed both text and cover. The boards are highly prone to split and break. The might be repaired with thread, with cartridge paper glued down, even with strawboard glued over a stitched mend.
Wolcott concluded her presentation with some examples of conservation treatment. One was a full treatment of a 1787 German text she performed at the Center for the Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts. She disbound the text, repaired the split board with a 25% gelatin solution, resewed, lined, and fitted the text back into the binding.
Generally, however, Wolcott does not advocate such invasive treatment of these bindings.  Repairs, if performed at all, should be minimal. She showed an example treated by Stephanie Wolff at Dartmouth, where a ramie band was threaded through the book to replace a missing thong.
Scaleboard bindings are sufficiently rare that Wolcott recommends for most simply improved housing that is sturdy enough to support the fragile boards. She showed examples of tuxedo boxes build out with extra sheets of corrugated board to provide rigidity to the structure and to give the small book some presence on the shelf. An alternative structures adheres the tuxedo box into a hard-shell binder that can defend itself on the shelf.
In the question period Gary Frost speculated that the boards were made as veneer (cut with a veneer knife) instead of sawn wood, but also doubted that the early colonials would have had easy access to veneer knives. What tools would have been used? Wolcott agreed that there is much still to be researched and explored on these bindings.