Structure of the Book – A History

I asked a few friends what my next blog post should be about and the history of the book won out. Hopefully I can keep it a nice blend of informative and interesting.

If we were to take our time machine and go back several centuries – don’t go too far back, we’re not looking at stone tablets or scrolls. If you stop right around the 1st century, you’ll find the earliest book commonly known as the codex.  The codex book can also sometimes be called Coptic binding. This is in reference to “its origin in North Africa, [and] was an “unsupported” technique of chain stitching” (Princeton University, 2004). This style of binding has thread that links each section together, forming a text block with a chain-like pattern of stitches along the spine. We see this “sewing method was used for centuries in cultures around the eastern Mediterranean, the Islamic Near East, and in North Africa” (Princeton University, 2004).

Below I have given some point form notes on the 1st to 8th centuries and provided a few images:

Nag Hammadi Codex . Image from Harvard University

1st – 4th Centuries:
-Codex: Book with pages, prior to this books were usually in a scroll format.
-Earliest examples are stab sewn with no cover or limp cover

3rd – 8th Centuries:
Chain stitching
-Wooden or papyrus boards
-Flush boards attached with sewing
-Headbands laced
-The codex gets bigger; single signatures change to multiple signatures (seen in the second image)

Example of chain stitching. Image from: Princeton University

Following the Coptic/codex structure if we take our time machine over to Europe and we enter the early medieval period we’ll find what is called “supported sewing”, differing from unsupported in that now the sections are sewn together along supports. These supports were common thongs or cords. We still do this today, sewing on tape or cords, you can see that in some of my previous posts. After the sewing the ends of the supports are attached to the boards. Often these boards were made of wood.

15th C English binding. Image credit: Princeton University

7th to 12th Centuries: (Early Medieval Bindings)
-Sewing on supports such as leather thongs
-Boards made of wood and covered with leather, at least along the spine
-Pages of vellum

9th – 14th Centuries: (Developments in Medieval Bindings)
-Clasps used at the fore edge to hold books closed
-Title on the fore edge.
-Sewing on double supports

15th– 17th Centuries: Regional differences

16th C decorative binding. Image from

 Southern Europe:
-Sewing on alum tawed straps
-Boards made of beech wood
-Goat or sheepskin leather
-Decoration in blind or gold mostly abstract
-Clasps hinged from top board

Northern Europe:
-Sewing on fiber cords
-Boards made of oak or thick beech
-Brown calf or pigskin leather
-Decoration in blind and mostly pictorial
-Clasps hinged on bottom board

At this time, we begin to see binding methods becoming streamlined, of course at this point they are still done by hand. We begin to also see spines rounded, boards made from paper instead of wood, and European methods spread to the Americas.  As we progress forward in time, we see different styles emerge with half and quarter styles for leather and cloth, publishers begin to take over the process, cloth becomes prevalent, and finally we end up where we are today.

Around the 19th century we also begin to see covers start to represent the contents of the book. Publishers found this was a better way to attract readers.

19th C cloth binding. Image credit:

18th Century:
-Basic medieval binding slowly evolving
-Use of recessed cords
-Half and Quarter style binders
-Decoration becomes more elaborate and refined

19th Century: Birth of the Modern Book
-Demand for books changes binding production and the era of brittle paper begins
-Case binding
-All-cloth bindings become more prevalent
-Decoration increases

20th Century: Modern Case Binding
-Production becomes fully mechanized
-Adhesive replaced thread for leaf attachment

And there you have it, a short, very condensed history of the book! If anyone has any suggestions for a blog post they’d like to see let me know in the comments.

Until next time,





Greenfield, Jane. ABC of Bookbinding: A Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1998. Print.

“Hand Bookbindings: Plain and Simple to Grand and Glorious.” Princeton University. The Trustees of Princeton University.

Miller, Lawrence A. “Decorative Bookbinding in the Sixteenth Century.” Cyclopaedia



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