Makers of bookbinders’ tools receive their due in Conroy’s new book

Makers of bookbinders’ tools receive their due in Conroy’s new book

Ellenport, Samuel

Makers of Bookbinders’ Tools Receive Their Due in Conroy’s New Book

Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers 1780-1965, by Tom Conroy (Oak Knoll Press/The Plough Press, 2002) 300 pages, illustrated, $55.

Infrequently, a book comes along that breaks new ground and defines a subject in such a way that it is an immediate “standard” reference. Such a book is Tom Conroy’s work on bookbinders’ finishing tool makers. This sounds like such an esoteric topic, yet in fact it follows a long period during which patrons and collectors sought out and valued decorated leather bindings tooled in gold and blind impressions. As Marianne Tidcombe points out in a short but incisive foreword, “the study of historical book-bindings is to a large extent a study of tools…” used to create their decorations.

Brass and, to some extent, bronze finishing tools have been used for centuries by bookbinders to impress designs and lines onto leather bindings. The literature of bookbinding and book collecting is rich in descriptions of bindings, and of the tools and designs used to create the differing patterns adorning book covers. Indeed, books such as Yves Devaux’s Dix Siecles De Reliure and McDonnell and Healy’s Gold-tooled Bookbindings Commissioned by Trinity College Dublin in the Eighteenth Century not only describe the change in taste over the years in European book decoration, but devote pages showing how the designs cut into the brass tools reflected the taste of the patrons and collectors in different centuries. It is somewhat surprising that, with the widespread interest in binding decoration, so little has been known about the people who actually supplied the bookbinders with their tools. This is the issue that Tom Conroy addresses so ably in his book.

During the almost two hundred years covered in Conroy’s book, there have been an incredible number of tools made for the binding trade. They range from small designs meant to stand by themselves or be used to create larger patterns, to all types of weights and lengths of lines and curves, large stamps for creating complex patterns, rolls with repeating designs on their perimeters to allow for continuous patterns, and all kinds of type and handle letters in vast varieties of faces and sizes. As the tools were cut in brass, many have survived and are being used today. As Conroy points out, perhaps one in ten are signed with the touchmarks of their makers. With this book there is now a methodology, a means of creating the discipline necessary for collecting: name of manufacturer, place, scarcity, and other information. In an instance of publication, a new world of tool identity and “collectability” has emerged.

In his well-presented introduction, Conroy explains the different types of tools, how they are made, and how they are used. The body of the book identifies the makers. The amount of work Conroy spent amassing this information, in most cases from primary sources, is stupendous; that it is so well-organized is a major feat. As one might expect, there is an excellent index, and a series of useful appendices. One appendix points the reader to collections of tools. Another has what Conroy calls Lineage Charts, which are simply fascinating. Starting with a maker, and using a “tree” common in genealogy, Conroy traces the paths of key workers and/or family members who continued separately in the trade. I have seen this done with clockmakers and their apprentices, but never with any aspect of bookbinding.

There are two more points to make regarding this important book. First is the fact that there is so little literature on the topic; indeed, this book can be considered new ground. Second, sprinkled throughout are illustrations from trade journals and manufacturer’s catalogs, as well as touch marks and other materials which provide a visual impact to the information conveyed.

This publication has set a high standard. Such a book usually engenders more “discoveries,” and more information will probably be made available in the future. It is the belief of this reviewer that Conroy’s work will become an overnight standard reference not only for bookbinders, book collectors, and students of the bookbinding, but to anyone interested in the development of those supplemental trades which act as tributaries to the main flow of craft.

by Samuel Ellenport

Sam Ellenport, a member of EAI4, is the owner of The Harcourt Bindery of Boston. He is a collector of binding tools and books on binding; he writes and lectures on the history of bookbinding as well.

Copyright Early American Industries Association Sep 2002

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