From the Design Desk: The American Bookbinder’s Museum

When I’m not working in the Production Department here at Chronicle, I like to spend my time bookbinding, and more recently, volunteering at the American Bookbinder’s Museum.

After a devastating flood this past February, Tim James, founder of the American Bookbinder’s museum, put out a call to his donors seeking their help to repair his damaged space. As luck would have it, one of his generous patrons offered to purchase a whole new building! The new museum space is located in San Francisco at 856 Folsom Street, a stone’s throw from YBCA, SFMOMA and other popular downtown cultural centers.

The lower level of the building, where the museum is now housed, is a huge industrial space and somewhat of a blank canvas. Filled with Tim’s impressive collection of 19th century bookbinding equipment, the museum is a fascinating place to visit and learn about how printing and bookbinding have developed throughout history, especially with the mechanization of many of the processes. At this point the museum is open for tours by appointment only, but we’re always looking for groups interested in engaging with the space. Also, we hope to acquire dedicated volunteers to write and give tours. This is a great opportunity for anyone who has an interest in the history of publishing/printing/bookbinding/unions/etc. to research their topics of interest and share them with the public. The hope is that there will be a variety of tours to engage people with many different interests.

This past week nearly 30 Chronicle Books employees (over the course of 3 days) visited the newly formed space for private tours. A big thank you to everyone who participated, it was wonderful to have such enthusiastic book lovers in the space.

Here are some photos from the tours…

On the left is a sewing frame where, primarily, women would have sewn books by hand. On the right is a Press and Plough, which was used to trim books one page at a time! This particular Press and Plough belonged to Stella Patri, a well known bookbinder and manuscript restorer, founding member of the Hand Bookbinder’s of California, and survivor of the 1906 earthquake (in short, quite an amazing woman).

Here we have some lovely Chronicle Books employees in front of the Imperial Press.

Here is a close-up of the Imperial Press; this was one of the first leaps in the mechanization of bookbinding. It was used for de-bossing and adding gold leaf to the book case, a process that was originally done entirely by hand.

These are lead dies used for stamping the cover of books in the Imperial press. These would have replaced the engraved hand-tools that were originally used.

Here we have Agate Burnishing tools, used to apply gold leaf before the invention of the Imperial Press.

Above is a Palmer and Rey Guillotine, which replaced the Press and Plough for trimming book blocks. This vastly increased the production of books because it allowed the journeyman to set a jig and recreate the same trim size on multiple books.

This machine would have been used to create a round spine on a book-block, which greatly improves the flexibility and therefore the longevity of the book.

Above is a Smyth Sewing machine c. 1910. Created by Joseph Smyth in the late 1800’s, this machine mechanized signature sewing, which until this point was the slowest part of the bookbinding process.

Chronicle Employees enthralled by the Smyth Sewing machine! (This is still a working machine, so we got to see a demonstration)

Needles for the Smyth Sewing Machine.

And finally, the illustrious Pen Ruling Machine! The gargantuan contraption will be up and running at some point in the future (after some much needed TLC… if you know anyone who has a knack for repairing machinery, let me know!). This will be 1 of 2 working Pen Ruling machines in country once we get it set up. After hand-drawn lines, this is how lined/grid paper was created.

Pen Ruling detail—these are various pens used to create lines of different widths.

Thanks for looking!

If you or anyone you know is interested in volunteering, or making a donation to the museum, you can visit the website or let me know!

Alexandra Williams—Production Assistant, Chronicle Books & Volunteer Coordinator, American Bookbinder’s Museum


1 Comment

  • Davie Hannaford jr December 27, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Great post!
    I'm getting ready to make a sewing frame and came across this post searching for ideas.
    Love the pen ruling machine. Very cool. I'm adding a visit to this museum to my bucket list.
    Thank you for sharing
    Happy New Year


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