Gaskell House Blogs

Old books: New Skills for the volunteers

7th August 2019
in blog, Collection, Volunteering

At Elizabeth Gaskell’s House we have quite a collection of old books. Our oldest date back to the  17th & 18th Century, most are 19th Century. The collection was begun through purchases during the restoration of the house and has been supplemented by donations. Many are in poor condition and some are deteriorating with use. We want our visitors to handle our books and actively encourage them to do so, but we are also conscious that we need to try to prevent them becoming too damaged.

During 2019 we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth in several ways. A grant was awarded to us by the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable a range of Ruskin-related activity including our current exhibition My Dear Mr Ruskin.  As we have a collection of approximately 50 volumes of Ruskin’s work it seemed appropriate to highlight books in some way. We undertook to try to learn some basic bookbinding skills in order to be able to give some of our Ruskin collection some care and attention and acquire some new skills for the future.

Contact was made with a bookbinder who could lead some of us House volunteers in a workshop. As a first step he supplied a list of equipment and materials which would be needed. This was when I first realised that we were entering a new world with its own language and mystique. What is Jaconette? Mull? Belmont Hollow? And most mysterious of all, what is a Nipping Press?

Luckily a budget was available and a search of E Bay revealed Nipping Presses to be heavy, usually cast-iron presses with a screw handle for applying heavy pressure to books. More modern versions are available but we wanted one which fitted with our Victorian furniture and ambience. We were fortunate to find an affordable one available in Stoke-on Trent and this handsome item was delivered by its seller. It is extremely heavy but fits well with The House in age and appearance, as well as being in good working order.

Cast iron nipping press – it is very heavy!

Eight volunteers gathered in the servant’s hall and were led through the complete process of rebinding cloth-covered books. Our trainer made it look relatively easy but when we had a go ourselves it inevitably proved to be quite tricky. There is much trimming and stitching and glueing to be done, as well as tucking in fiddly little corners.  What had seemed a quite logical process when we were watching an expert, suddenly seemed puzzling and difficult.  But practice makes perfect and we know that if we can try to keep trying out the processes we were taught I’m sure some of us will be able to do some useful repair work. We intend to follow up quite quickly with another practice session.

We want to try to repair some of our most damaged books but are conscious that book binding is a specialist skill which people can take a long time to learn. Our first workshop used some books which hadn’t made it onto our shelves due to being in too poor a condition; we certainly haven’t touched our Ruskin collection yet. But in time we will try to repair and restore some Ruskin titles as well as other books in our collection. We hope that Ruskin would approve of our attempts to learn new skills and to keep the tradition of book binding craft alive at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

Jane Mathieson- Volunteer (and aspiring book binder!) 

This volunteer training and the exhibition have been made possible by money raised by National Lottery players and is funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

We've got a certainly is a beauty...I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can.’

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a letter to her friend Eliza Fox in 1850.