18th century

Eighteenth-Century Books

I love collecting 18th-century books. First of all, I love the appearance of the long ‘s’ letter, or ſ letter, though that is not the only reason I love books from this period.

Thomas Evans' Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative (1784)

Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative (1784)

It is also because every book which survives from the eighteenth century is a unique object, and likely there is not another one like it in the whole world. 

Let me explain why.

In the 18th century the process of buying a book was different to today.

The book would be sold to the purchaser by a printer in a ‘dis-bound’ form; that is to say, simply as a block of text; no leather boards, no spine; just simply a block of text.

The purchaser would then take the block of text which he purchased from the printer to a binders’ workshop, and have the book bound according to the purchaser’s specification.

The purchaser would usually want the book to conform to a certain pattern to match the rest of the books in his/her private library. 

Even the lettering on the spine was personalised for the consumer, and hence no book from the eighteenth century had the same lettering on it.

Needless to say, this was an expensive process; Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), sold for 12s. To put that price into context, that equates to £33.63 in 2005 money; and that was the price simply for the block of text, and does not take into account the cost of materials for the binding process.

Specific specifications were also provided sometimes from the printers to the binders, as evident from the ‘Directions to the Binder’ notice which appears at the end of The Britannic Magazine for the Year 1793.

'Directions to the Binder' in The Britannic Magazine for the Year 1793.

‘Directions to the Binder’ in The Britannic Magazine for the Year 1793.

But there is more; if you were a bit wealthier than other purchasers, you could buy more pictures to go into your book. Most books came with an frontispiece, but many eighteenth-century books lacked pictures throughout. The fact that any two editions of the same text can contain various numbers of images further makes eighteenth-century books special and unique in the world of second-hand books.

But when we take this aspect of book history into account, it goes to show that the past is, indeed, a foreign country, where people did things differently. One of the things they did differently in the eighteenth century was the way that they purchased books; there’s a whole culture connected with the production and dissemination of books in the eighteenth century that has by and large been forgotten by people.

"The Life and Ballads of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood's Garland" (1865). 19th century cloth bound cover and spine, embossed in gold lettering.

The Life and Ballads of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood’s Garland (1865).
19th century cloth bound cover and spine, embossed in gold lettering.

Our way of purchasing books – that is, as complete “whole” products – only emerged during the mid-nineteenth century when printers began experimenting with cloth covers, and learning how to emboss the covers with lettering and patterns.

The nineteenth century was a period in which many more people became literate, and selling a book as a whole product simply fed the growing demand for literature by making it cheaper.

Still, the eighteenth-century books, in my humble opinion, are more ornate.


Further Reading:

David Pearson, Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond their Texts (London: British Library Publishing Division, 2012).

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