An Informal & Historical Intro to Book Cases


by Jim Rock, Parnassus on the Net

Artist’s rendering of the Ark of the Covenant Early portable case for your basic binding-contract in book or scroll form.1

Owners, authors, couriers, and caretakers have endeavored to encase documents containing the written word in protective and decorative cases almost since the advent of writing itself. In the period since the invention of the movable metal type printing press in the 15th century and even earlier in post Roman Empire Europe these protective coverings have in most cases been physically attached to the writings themselves and formed the artifact which we revere and trade, sharing with the vintner the ancient question, “What do they buy that is half so dear as that which they sell?”

However a much older tradition, and one which is still with us today, albeit in rarified form, is that of the separate case or box to protect writing in a number of varied forms, including that of the book. This is a tradition that goes back to the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Japanese –even the Sumerians. Perhaps the example of the earliest portrayals of a “book” case most of us have seen is in epic and historical movies. Perhaps Gustav DorĂ©’s depiction of “The Ark of the Covenant” shown in an “Indiana Jones” movie, the ornate gold and jewel encrusted sheaths in which the messages of Yul Brenner were carried in The Ten Commandments, or the sturdy leather cases carrying Imperial edicts to the commanders of the Legions in many a sword and sandal movie.. These all predate the modern book “binding” and belong to another heritage, that which has come down to us in the form of the “slip case” and book boxes of various kinds.

Japanese Dharani Woodblock scrolls from 770 A.D. with wooden pagoda shaped case.2

This article is a short essay on the type of non attached coverings one may find encasing books, pamphlets, and ephemera produced in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century. This article is not meant to be either comprehensive or esoteric in its scope but, rather, helpful and concise; comporting, it is hoped, to the interests, proclivities, and tempo of its audience.

The four most common types of cases encountered by the book collector or dealer, according to John Carter in An ABC for Book Collectors, a book to which this article is deeply indebted, are slip cases, the fall-down-back box, the pull off case, and the four-fold-wrapper or the portfolio with flaps.

The slip case is an open faced box which is designed to hold the book snugly and, usually, to leave the spine open and unprotected for viewing on a shelf. This is the most common and easiest to describe of Carter’s four types. Usually a slip case from the 20th century is a plain enough item, perhaps following the design and materials of the encased book’s cover. Often a slip case is just a plain cloth or paper covered chipboard affair with a stamped spine or one with a paper label attached. In general these simple slip cases can be described using the type of condition oriented description reserved for the underlying book’s dust jacket. Their more ornate leather, gilt, and hand tooled brethren can almost always be described using the same terminology one would use for the underlying book (half-leather, etc.) to describe special features. Occasionally there is some feature such as thumb-and-forefinger cutouts for grabbing the book. The special features of some slip cases are so unusual that there is no common specialized term to describe them. For instance I have seen several descriptions of a single unusual configuration, a large slip case which includes a smaller piggy-back slip case for a miniature copy of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary to accompany an oversized copy of Boswell’s Life. When confronted by such non-standard cases you must choose the description that you find comfortable, in my case “piggy-back,” eschew the others, or in some cases bravely use your own descriptive words if your perusing of catalogs and lists of descriptive terms such as the one at IOBA and such books as Carter’s have not provided you with a comfortable vocabulary. But, in the main, the features of the slip case may be described with the common vocabulary of used and rare book description.

The names used in this article for various types of case are ones that have become standard in the traditional book world and, I think, you should consider using them in your description of these cases because they provide a comfortable common language for those in the book world. However, in the brave new world of internet book selling communication with potential book buyers always trumps the desire to use one’s descriptions as heuristic devices for the reader or any need on the seller’s part to show erudition. I would not only use the correct word when describing these cases on the internet, I would always provide a description in simple language of what the term means in terms of the actual functioning of the type of protective case being described. This make for a little longer description but leaves your potential customer better informed and less likely to feel confused, put off, or irritated by your description.

Medieval Bag Binding c 15th Century, Right is the Apostle Jacob holding bag binding from c1435 alter piece from Church of the Benedictine Nuns in Preetz (Holstein), in National Museum Copenhagen 3

There is a modern description pitfall I would point out regarding the slip case. There are problems for those who have traditionally used the terms cased or case bound to describe a hardback book, in an attempt to describe the distinction between the older method of binding a book, i.e., placing the outer cover on as an integral part of the book page gathering and sewing process as opposed to casing a book, i.e., producing a number of completed book bodies and then placing the case on them in a subsequent step. The problem is that the newer generation of buyers, collectors, and even book dealers, do not understand this distinction and are aware of the term case only in as it regards a slip case. I was recently asked by a dealer to allow a return on a modern book I had described as case bound due to the fact it had no slip case.

The clam shell, or as Carter refers to it, the fall-down-back box is fairly rare in American books as a publisher supplied item, although it appears rather more often in books of the early part of the century and may often have been added by a collector or library, especially when the enclosed material was of a rather fragile nature. The fall-down-back box is rather like some pre-scored boxes used for mailing books. It has a back (spine) which is scored at the front and back allowing the box to lie open, the front portion folds over the back allowing the book to be completely enclosed and displayed, often the spines are designed to appear as the spine to a book, even if the enclosed material is a pamphlet or ephemera. The fall-down-back box is a very nice way to protect fragile material because it allows one to open it and view the book’s front cover and spine without ever touching the protected piece.

The pull-off case comes in two flavors, one, which is like a double slip case involves the addition of a second, slightly larger slip case which slides over the smaller one and thus covers the book completely. The second type of pull-off case is rather like a chocolate box, the book is placed within and a tightly fitted lid is placed over the bottom portion of the case. These cases are often leather and are sometimes designed to be waterproof, air tight, and even fire-proof. By the way, Carter points out that in the earlier part of the century these cases may have an asbestos lining, be careful if you run across one of these!

Lovely clam shell or fall-down-back box (larger detail ill. at end of article) Interior showing the protected early D.H Lawrence pamphlet
The fourth type of case mentioned by Carter is the four-fold-wrapper or the portfolio with flaps. This is fairly common, but is not always thought of as a case. In the early part of the 20th century and in a number of genre publications such as Fantasy and Science Fiction art portfolios this type of case or protective covering is quite common to this day. It has also been widely used to preserve poetry or other small press books originally bound in wrappers.

As far as evaluation of the various types of slip cases go there are two general rules. If the book or ephemera was issued by the publisher, its condition and presence are subtractive in value. That is, the value of a fine copy assumes the presence of the fine protective case and any flaws in the case, or the fact that it is missing will redound heavily against the piece in the market place. On the other hand, cases and protective coverings added by collectors or others, after publication, are purely additive. They fall into the category of signature and association material, they can only enhance the value of the piece. In fact, a fine beautifully executed leather case on a mediocre copy of a book may constitute the majority of value for the piece.

We hope that this brief description will serve to acquaint the nascent book seller with some of the basic facts about protective cases for books.

The following books may be of help in further pursuing the subject.

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter

Collectors Book of Books by Eric Quayle

History of the Book by Svend Dahl

A Short History of the Printed Word by Warren Chappell

THE ILLUSTRATED BOOK: A SURVEY OF GENRES by Richard Minsky


and we leave you with, The More Things Change Department:

Is it all the Book? Is it part Book Protective Case? Is it Art? Enjoy.

Edna Lazaron Terrorism, 1985 45.8 cm x 17.8 cm diameter

Two scrolls of collaged mixed media mounted on unbleached muslin in ceramic container with nails and cork top and miniature cap pistol. Edition of 6.

The scroll in a vessel is among the most ancient of book forms. Here a contemporary artist utilizes our association of this form with the Dead Sea Scrolls and other relics of the Holy Land to create another visual association with the book’s theme, terrorism. See the work at this site:

http://www.colophon.com/gallery/minskyshow/structur.htm


Foot notes:
1. From Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia Website
2. From pub domain ill. in A Short History of the Printed Word by Warren Chappell
3. From illustration in 1918-202 notes on The History of the Book by Svend Dahl

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website