I’ve been thinking a lot about Watership Down lately. This is probably because every trip to do laundry leads me through a warren of the ubiquitous Ames rabbits. Like the rabbits in Richard Adams’ novel, Ames rabbits are not your typical cute bunnies, (they are the scourge of gardens everywhere) and the book takes the child-like theme of talking animals and transforms it into a story best handled by adults.
One book structure that I’ve identified during the baggy books treatment project is a physical manifestation of this dichotomy: the wire-stapled children’s book. It really should not be handled by children!
This book, called One Hundred and One Stories for Girls and Boys, is a darling volume. It is a paper-bound, late 19th century volume printed on acidic paper, now quite discolored. The boards are loose but still attached via the mull, and the signatures are intact, with only the first and last few pages of the volume showing damage such as tears. The board edges have taken a beating, but the squares still offer protection to the paper within, although because the boards are loose, this protection is reduced. With black and white illustrations, sometimes hand colored (inside or outside the lines, depending on the young owner’s fancy), and additional graphite drawings on the endpapers, it was clearly well loved.
So well loved, in fact, that there is little left to the spine, once covered in paper as well, but mull and, well…staples.
There is no visible adhesive residue on the folds, so from what can be inferred from the volume itself, the signatures were stapled through the folds and the mull, and then covered with the paper wrapper. You can see on the spine that the location of the staples was staggered, so as to reduce swell in those areas. The steel staples are not actively rusted, and actually quite pliable.
Peter D. Verheyen, in his blog The Pressbengel Project, explains the history of wire stapling and presents images of the machine used to create these bindings in his blogpost on wire-stapled bindings: http://pressbengel.blogspot.com/2011/05/wire-stapled-bindings-drahtheftung.html. In the late 19th century, August Brehmer perfected a machine used to “sew” books with wire staples. I’m quoting directly from Verheyen’s blogpost, in which he cites a description of this machine:
The staples are driven from the inside of the section through the fold and through the tapes or open fabric which is stretched and firmly held by clasps directly opposite to each staple binder and inserter. The projecting legs of the staples are clinched over, thus producing a firm connection between the section and the tapes or fabric, whichever is used. In order to reduce the swell in the back of the book which would be caused if the staples in the various sections were all inserted in a corresponding position, the machine is so constructed that each staple forming apparatus has two or three shifts whereby the staples in adjoining sections are inserted in different positions so that there appear on the back two or three times as many rows of staples as there are staples in each section.
Like caoutchouc bindings, which were popular in the United Kingdom from about 1840-1870, wire-stapled bindings quickly fell out of favor as it became clear that the binding method lacked in durability and put the books bound in this manner at risk of damage. Nevertheless, these bindings are examples of an important chapter in the history of the book, in which the bookbinding trade collided with industrialization.
I thought about how to treat this volume for a while, and at first I only knew what I didn’t want to do. After looking at the brittle and acidic paper, I knew that I did not want to remove the staples, because I would be afraid of damaging the paper in the process. Removing the staples would also implicate finding another way to bind the signatures, such as sewing, that the acidic paper, had it survived the staple removal, would not withstand without damage. I also did not want to get rid of the original mull, since it still has small remnants of the paper spine that tells us how the book might have looked originally. Finally, the history of the book structure itself, and its relative rarity made me reluctant to drastically change it.
After discussing my thoughts with Melissa, I chose a treatment with fairly minimal intervention: I gently surface cleaned the pages with a latex sponge, mended the tears with tengujo pasted out on blotter, and then stabilized the board attachments with inner hinges of tengujo. This helped reposition the boards and realign the squares. I used a needle-nosed plier to gently fold down the sticking-out staples.
Following the treatment, I nestled the book into a drop-spine box, including a brief explanation of the binding structure, and a warning about the staples.
I’m happy with my decision to keep the treatment the least invasive possible, while still stabilizing damaged areas. It’s important to keep examples of these binding structures around, since they, along with the content of the book itself, provide a great deal of information about the time period and country that produced them. I’ve come across a few more of these books just during the baggy book project alone, which speaks to the identity and the acquisition methods of the collection here at Parks Library. It’s all very interesting, and I’m glad to have discovered this structure!
The enclosure will protect the book, but it will also hopefully protect readers against the dangers that dwell within. The staples still pose a problem of snagging, but inside the enclosure the risk is minimized, and we will rely on the reading room staff to instruct patrons how to safely handle the book.
Thanks to Peter Verheyen for his permission to use information from his blog and research in this post.