The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 4
Aug 1982


Colonial Binding in Williamsburg

by Mark Howell and Sandra Yoder

How does one produce an 18th century book, finish it to 18th century expectations and then expect it to be acceptable to 20th century standards? The problem involved requires a definite philosophy of purpose that must be followed to the letter. The bookbindery at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, is committed to reproducing the techniques, tools, and working conditions that will recreate the environment necessary to produce authentic period bindings, and not to simply make 18th century "looking" books.

There are, of course, problems. There are modern techniques and materials that are probably better than those used in the 18th century. There is also the question of the purpose of modern leather bindings in relation to leather books of the 18th century. Hand binding today is an art, a unique medium, and the result (God willing) is a treasured exception to the rule in this world of perfect binding. The 18th century book is the result of a tradesman executing piecework to make a living. Only rarely was an 18th century bookbinder commissioned to exercise his imagination and produce a more elaborate book "in the neatest manner." The vast majority of American bindings from that period are plain, unadorned sheep or calfskin bindings. What little decoration there is is often crooked and imperfect: "charming" today but the result of a hurried craftsman trying to produce as many books as possible in the least amount of time. Is the public today ready to accept such bindings when compared to the precision work of today's binders? We think they are. In our visitors, our books have a special appeal; they represent a link to a past that will always fascinate them.

Colonial Williamsburg is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the 18th century to over one million people a year. The function of our bindery is not only to produce a product but to explain the craft and its relation to the 18th century society as a whole. This is our dual purpose: to educate and produce. The desire is to create in the visitor's mind the logic for the book's construction and appearance. The result is to imbue in the visitors a realistic 'sense of the craft, its history, its techniques, and to create in their minds a clearer understanding of the craft free from misconceptions and stereotypes.

This program did not just spring up, of course. It is evolving and changing constantly as new information and research render many of our older practices inappropriate. This too is an important part of our program; i.e., we constantly use the hundreds of Williamsburg imprints still in existence to research 18th century techniques of bookbinding, printing, papermaking, etc., to weed out modern or inappropriate practices that may have crept in over the years.

Training is still based on apprenticeships and is offered on-site, in costume. The positions offered at the bindery are paid, career-oriented and involve the craftspeople not only in learning the craft (or teaching, as the case may be) but also in explaining or "interpreting" the trade to the public. The program allows the craftsperson to progress through a series of products ranging from simple stitch books to half-bindings and eventually to full leather gilt bindings and book restoration. Techniques and materials are judged according to their authenticity and quality. The attempt is to produce a book that any competent craftsman of the period, given time, could produce and still preserve the flavor of common bindings. The job is difficult, frustrating, challenging, and patience-building, but the end result is a rewarding experience and career.

From time to time positions come open in both the bookbindery and the press room for applicants of all levels of expertise. If you are interested in future openings, please send a résumé to be kept on file to:

Sandra Yoder, Manager, Printing Office, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Drawer C, Williamsburg, VA 23187.

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