In classical times, there were great libraries and an established book trade but much of this was lost with the decline of the Roman Empire. By the 7th and 8th centuries, it was only in the monasteries on the fringes of the old Roman world, in Ireland and in the Byzantine Empire, that the art of book making survived. But the illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, which these monasteries produced, are among the most beautiful books ever made.
Over the next five hundred years, as monasticism spread throughout Europe, so too did the production of manuscripts. These were mostly books, such as musical and liturgical texts, made for the monks own use but some, including the famous Bedford Hours (ca 1423), were also made for wealthy patrons. Even after the introduction of printing, hand-made manuscripts continued to be produced and remained a significant part of book making until the late 17th century.
These manuscripts were generally made of vellum, paper being unknown in Europe before the 12th century. Paper did not become common for book making the the 15th century.
Printing with movable type began with Johann Gutenburg in 1439. Books had previously been printed from carved woodblocks. Gutenburg’s invention made it posssible to edit text and greatly increased the speed at which multiple copies of a work could be produced. Very little of Gutenburg’s work has survived with the only complete book definitely attributable to him being the “36-line Bible” of 1457, which remains on of the most beautiful books ever made. By 1480, more than 100 towns had printing presses. By 1500, Venice alone had 150 printing presses.
William Caxton. the first English printer, produced the first book printed in English, “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye”, in 1474 while working in Cologne. He produced the first book printed in England, “Dictes and Sayengis of the Philosophers”, two years later. The first printing press in the New World was operating in Mexico City in 1544. The first North American printing press was set up in 1638 with the oldest existing American book being the Bay Psalm Book produced in 1640. The first Australian printing press was established in 1795, only seven years after the first settlers arrived.
Early printed books from the fifteenth century are called “incunabula”. They look very similar to manuscripts on which they was modeled. During this time about 35,000 books were printed. Most were written in Latin on obscure theological topics and are of little value to collectors..
Historical, scientific and fictional works gradually become more important.
Great private book collections began to be assembled from as early as 1550. Some of these became the foundation of national libraries – the British Library began with the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571 to 1631) and the French Bibliotheque Nationale began with the collection of Charles V.
Early books were sold as a bundle of separate pages which the purchaser took to a bookbinder. The purchaser could then specify the type of binding and lettering that they wanted. The publisher gave printed binding instructions, but these were often ignored – so books of this period may have pages in different orders, for example, with all the illustrations at the beginning or the contents at the end.
Little changed in the technology of book-making until the early 19th century, when the whole process became mechanised. This allowed enormous cost reductions which, in turn, led to greatly increased numbers of books being produced. In the 1820s, England was producing about 850 titles a year; by 1835, the number had jumped to 2530 and by 1880, it reached 9,000.
Before 1830, most new fiction was sold in three volumes at 31s 6d; by 1853, fiction reprints could be purchased for as little as 1s 6d.
In 1837 in Leipzig, Christian Tauchnitz began producing cheap paperback “pirated” reprints of English books. Tauchnitz’ company eventually produced over 5,000 titles but agreed not to sell them in England or the British Empire. Low-cost, mass-produced paperbacks were not produced in England for almost another century when Allen Lane began the Penguin series.
From the 1830s to the 1860s, books were usually machine bound with cloth covers and the title printed onto the binding. The boards often have very elaborate florid impressed decorative patterns, highlighted with gold. From the 1860s, bindings became much plainer; they were usually gray or, sometimes, green with more restrained geometric decoration.
Elaborate pictorial images impressed into the boards and spines, usually with gilt highlights, were introduced in the 1870s. And in the 1880s. elaborate floral and geometric designs often filled the covers and spines. Simple bindings with cloth covers in subdued colours returned to fashion in the 1890s.
Dust jackets began to be used around 1900. At first, these were simple paper covers to protect the book, but publishers recognised the marketing potential of colourful covers, and by the 1930s, they had evolved into minor works of art.
In the 1930s, “book clubs” were established. Initially, these bought overruns from publishers and sold them at a discount. Later, they began printing copies themselves, usually on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings. As a result, book club editions are generally not popular with collectors.
In 1939, publishers began reprinting best selling books in small format pocket editions.