The book boom: Early bookbinding inventions

By Joan Boudreau
Black and white illustration of woman and girl using machine

American inventions associated with the book were having a bit of a boom between the 1850s and the 1880s. The number of books published annually in the United States grew from 2,600 in 1869 to 4,500 in 1890.

What boosted the American book production and publishing trades? Circumstances included a growing population, interest in bolstering the distribution of information, advancements in printing technologies, the establishment of new paper mills, and inclinations toward competition and entrepreneurship.

Black and white illustration of woman and girl using machine

Did we have books before the boom? Yes, but most were imported from Europe. The few early American firms that produced and published books tended to be located in East Coast states, such as New York and Pennsylvania. The mid- to late-19th century boom encouraged the expansion of the book trade across the country with the increased availability there of supplies such as paper, machinery, and skilled workers, including papermakers, printers, and bookbinders.

America was at a turning point and eager to equal—and even outdo—all things European, including the production of consumer goods.

One of the most prolific inventors associated with the book trade was Irish-born David McConnell Smyth (1833—1907). Smyth's best-known invention was the first book-sewing machine. Granted patent number 74948 in 1868, the invention reworked and mechanized some of the systems and skills of the trade. According to Frank E. Comparato's Books for the Millions, the invention "incorporated a number of vertical straight needles—long and fragile . . . the notched (sewn) signatures, open and flat, were fed by hand above the needles . . . a spring-loaded, hand-operated rod passed thread to the hooked needles and retracted. The attendant had then to refold the signature, closing it over the stitch, before feeding another."

Smyth is noted for having been granted patents for some forty inventions for clothing and book sewing, as well as mining and irrigation machines. He is memorialized with the term "Smyth sewn" or "Smyth sewing," which refers to his inventions having to do with the "method of sewing together folded, gathered, and collated signatures with a single thread sewn through the folds of individual signatures." His many inventions inspired the formation in the 1880s of The Smyth Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, which successfully produced examples of his machines for the market.

Patent drawing

Of the some 10,000 patent models in this museum's collections, about forty are listed with titles including the word "book," representing some thirty inventors. They include machines invented for book sewing and stitching, book trimming, a bookbinders' sewing table, a bookbinders' arming press, a bookbinders' finishing roll, machines for rounding and backing books, and sheet-feeding apparatuses for bookbinding. Nine of Smyth's models are represented in the collections across the museum.

The museum's patent models having to do with printing, type, and books reside in the Graphic Arts Collection. You can explore them online. If you have research that could help us better document our collections, we'd love to hear from you by e-mail.

Book-binding device

Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about the "Pony" printing press.