Early Imprints

As an antiquarian bookseller, I have occasion to own, at least temporarily, a number of very old books. Today I thought I would feature some of these, and give a bit of background about the significance of early printed works.

Many reading this already know that the first major book produced in the West using movable type was the Gutenberg Bible, published in the 1450s. This was a huge achievement in the world of printing, and led to the rapid adoption of Gutenberg’s style of printing press. The change in speed and range of mass communication make this one of the most important occurrences in modern history, comparable to the advent of the internet in the number of possibilities it opened up.

Up to this point, books were reproduced either by manuscript (i.e., copied by hand), or by woodblock print. Both were very time-consuming, and thus implicitly limited the level of production. Woodblock printing, as compared to printing using movable type, was also quite costly, as it required the fashioning of a completely new printing block for every page to be reproduced.

As a result of its historical and scholarly significance, the Gutenberg Bible is highly collectible. Because only four dozen are known to still exist, and fewer than half of these are complete, prices realized for this work continue to climb – though the last complete copy sold for $2.2 million at auction in 1978, current auction estimates are in the eight-figure range.

Of course, few of us can afford such extravagance. The good news is, following Gutenberg’s triumphant creation of his printing press there was an explosion of interesting printed material, much of which still survives today. Some of this has vast literary and historical significance (e.g., Shakespeare’s 1623 ‘First Folio‘); other material is of little interest in terms of subject matter, but show us important things relating to the evolution of printing, binding, paper-making, typography, language, etc.

The Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible

And of course, some volumes are interesting for both reasons. A good example is the Geneva Bible, also called the ‘Breeches’ Bible. It is symbolic of 16th century Protestantism, preceding the now-ubiquitous King James version by 51 years; it was the Bible used by Shakespeare; a copy was even taken to America on the Mayflower. It is also considered the first study Bible, in that it includes introductions to each book, and other additional material making it well suited to more incisive examination of the text. Copies were produced as early as 1560, and continued until around 1644. I am currently privileged to have a 1606 copy in the shop’s inventory, pictured here, which is completely original (i.e., the binding has not been replaced or refurbished).

This was acquired in a consignment of early and decorative bindings from a private collection, some of which also appear in this post. Of particular interest to me is the presence of ink notations detailing family history (christenings, births, etc.) at several points within. While normally such notations detract from value, to me this is an exception – I enjoy thinking about these words being recorded by a careful hand four hundred years ago.

Four other books from the same collection are interesting mainly for their bindings.

Custom-Bound Wedding Gift

Wedding Gift

The most notable is a custom-bound collection of four religious devotionals. It is an excellent example of late 17th century binding design. As our listing states, it is ‘contemporary dated custom full morocco with five raised spine bands, gilt cherub and grape decorations with red flowers on front & rear panel, gilt page ridges, red endpapers with gilt design. Leather device on front paste-down reading ‘James & Mary Metcalfe Octob:15 1700′, which suggests this volume was specially bound as a wedding gift.’ While each work alone is not particularly notable, the four bound together is a unique thing (in the true sense of the word ‘unique’; i.e, one-of-a-kind). It is a particularly well-preserved volume, and must have been commissioned to an expert based on the level of detail of the work — at this point in the history of bookbinding, the decorative work mentioned was all done by hand, and thus achieving the symmetry and exactitude shown here was quite difficult. This ranks as one of the favorite fine bindings I have held in inventory during my bookselling career.

If the following has piqued your interest, we have a number of other examples you can peruse on our website, many of which are pictured below. Simply use the following link to visit the Early Imprints catalog:

Early Imprints

You can also click the image of any of the works featured in this blog to view our full catalog listing. Other highlights include: the earliest book in our inventory (1567); a 1584 religious work bound in German blind tooled pig skin; and a 1688 treatise on fortifications bound in vellum.

1831083 1826270 1815114 1668387 1663137 1663130 1662764 1659688

Jonathan Smalter, Bookseller
President, Yesterday’s Muse Books
Vice President, IOBA
Sellers of fine books in all categories, with specialties in:
Castles & Military Fortifications; Dystopian Literature
32 W Main St Ste 1
Webster, NY 14580
Phone: (585) 265-9295

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