Nothing Goes to Waste: Print and Manuscript Pieces Recycled for Bindings

Got a pile of scrap paper accumulating on your desk? It’s not a problem if you’re a book binder!

Manuscript and printed waste (like that growing stack of misprints that you use for doodles) have long been reused for book bindings. This practice was especially common from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries because paper and vellum were so dearly expensive. Any piece of paper or sheet of vellum that was sound enough to reuse could be employed in the making of a book.

There are, in fact, many examples of books completely bound in other manuscripts in the Newberry’s collection. Musical documents are a frequent source for bindings, as in a group of volumes all dating to the fifteenth century bound in vellum musical manuscripts. [Thomas Aquinas, Commentarisu in librum Aristotelis De Anima, Pavia, 1488, Inc. 7093; Bergamo, Statuta communitatis Bergomi, Brescia, 1491, Inc. 6987; Papers of the Parravicini family of Ardenno, Italy, fifteenth - nineteenth century, Case MS 7a 1 vol. 7; Pompeius Trogus, Epitomae Justini in Trogi Pompeii historias, Venice, 1497, Inc. 5319; and Sancta Maria de Paulus, Additiones ad Postillam Nicolai de Lyra super Biblia, cum replicis Mathiae Dorinck, Venice, 1483, Inc. 4181.]

The resulting bindings may have been based on economic imperatives, but today they add research value for the history of the book, and, I would argue, aesthetic value.

Manuscripts and early print runs with fewer copies were well-suited to this kind of binding; they were unique items that could easily take a purely simple and practical protective binding. However, as print technology made it easier to mass produce texts through the sixteenth century, binders recycled waste paper differently. If you wanted to sell a standardized volume, you wouldn’t choose from a miscellaneous menagerie of manuscripts for the bindings. You would instead create a binding that was the same for all the texts.

But paper and vellum waste still had their uses. Binders could re-use waste from their shops for spine linings and endsheets—functional aspects of a book that would be hidden beneath a more standardized exterior. Sometimes they’d even have a little fun with the recycled material.

This use of printed and manuscript waste is a little more difficult to discover, but our conservators come across examples when they treat damaged books. That’s how they’ve found spine linings made from printed waste, including two well-preserved text samples [Baskes F1004 .L68 1881], a printed illustration that they call the “lovers of the spine” cut perfectly for a secret rendezvous [D 20 . R68 1863 bd.11], and paste downs made from an advertisement hiding beneath marbled endpapers [In Nicholas Nickleby, PR4565 .A1 1863].

Hidden printed waste could be a private joke for one or simply a happy accident, but sometimes the manuscript waste becomes more important than the book itself.

One such text is a treasure of the Newberry’s collection. When the Newberry acquired Itenerarium filiorum Israel ex Aegypto in terra remissions (1621) by Sepabtiao Barradas in 2003, it was the only copy at an American library, but the manuscript waste used in the binding sparked even more interest. The donor acquired the book in part because they were curious about this hidden treasure. Once in the collection, conservators found manuscript sheets underneath the cover and spine lining: a fragment of sermons attributed to Saint Augustine from before the eleventh century [Pre-1500 MS 200]. After considerable discussion, the curators and conservators decided to dissect the cover, and the manuscript was removed from the book and given its own catalog record so that it could be studied more intensively.

By Jamie Waters, Communications Coordinator