Y is for Yellowback

‘Yellowbacks’ were an innovative and distinctive publishing format developed in the middle of the 19th century. These small format books were covered with glazed (usually yellow) paper covered boards, which was block printed with eye-catching imagery.

Designed to appeal to a growing market of readers, emerging in part as a result of the spread of education, the development of the ‘yellowback’ was also closely linked to the emergence of the first railway bookstalls. The format was designed to grab the attention of travellers in a hurry, and to capitalise on a spirit of adventure. Yellowbacks were small, light, and cheap to buy – part subsidised by the use of advertisements.

Inside these striking covers yellowbacks typically contained sensation novels, crime fiction and adventure stories – usually stereotyped reprints of earlier print editions of popular texts by well-known authors.

References and Further Reading:

UCLA Yellowback Cover Art Gallery

James, Elizabeth. “Aspects of the Victorian Book: Yellowbacks”.

Shilton, Tom. “The Yellowback: Sensational Stories on the Railways.” 2017

W is for Woodcut

Woodcut printing is a technique that pre-dates the printed book; used for printing playing cards and religious prints, for example, as well as for block books. To create a woodcut image, the artist either drew directly onto a wooden block, or onto paper which was then pasted to the block. This image would then be carved in relief – so that the area to be inked stood out, whilst the white spaces in the finished image were carved into the block.

Whilst the very earliest of books were largely printed without any illustration or decoration – perhaps leaving spaces on the printed page to allow for these to be added by hand – printers quickly realised that woodcut printing offered a simple means to add decorative features and illustrations to texts. Crucially, the fact that woodcut printing was, like movable type, a relief technique, meant that images and text could be set and printed together, on the same sheet of paper. By contrast, intaglio printing techniques – which involve an image being incised into a surface – required a different kind of press (a rolling press) in order to produce an image. As a result, if illustrations produced using intaglio techniques were to accompany text on the same page, the sheet would have to be printed twice – once for text and once for image. This was a timely and a costly process.

Woodcuts, then, were the preferred method of producing images for early printed books. Earlier in the series we introduced the most highly-illustrated book of the 15th century – the Nuremberg Chronicles – with its 1809 woodcut images, produced using 645 woodblocks. Since woodblocks were durable, it was not uncommon to reuse images – sometimes even in a different work entirely.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is an excellent example of the close marriage of text and image that woodcut printing enabled.

Whilst the earliest woodcut images in books were generally fairly simple, outline images, designed to allow for colouring by hand, by the end of the 15th century the art of woodcut illustration in books had advanced such that the most sophisticated productions displayed considerable artistry, including the use of chiaroscuro effects to produce tones. Still, in terms of the quality of the finished image, woodcut was not able to compete with intaglio methods of printing. It was for this reason that copperplate printing eventually overtook woodcut as the preferred method of illustrating books, by around the middle of the 16th century. Because of the difficulties in printing text alongside copperplate images, it became common for illustrations to take up entire pages, which were then inserted in place before binding. As a result, books generally contained fewer illustrations and decorations than they had during the golden age of the woodcut.

The use of woodcut printing was just one of the techniques revived by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. The 87 wood-cut illustrations in this, the Kelscott Chaucer, are by William Harcourt Hooper, after drawings by Edward Burne-Jones.

References and further reading:

Hind, Arthur Mayger, An introduction to a history of woodcut, with a detailed survey of work done in the 15th century, 1935

MacLean, Robert, Book illustration: the woodcut2012

Suarez, Michael F. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

V is for Vellum

Vellum is a type of high quality parchment made from calf skin – parchment being prepared animal skin (usually calf, sheep, or goat) used for writing, printing and binding manuscripts and books. The British Library’s Making Manuscripts site has a short video illustrating vellum.

Vellum and parchment are most familiar as the material used for medieval manuscripts, but books have been printed on parchment from the start of printing in the mid-15th century onwards. SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10, the first printed edition of a classical author (Cicero) was printed on vellum in 1465. SCA also holds several early 16th-century Books of Hours printed on vellum and decorated in just the same way as their manuscript companions. Fragments of parchment repurposed from manuscripts also appear in the collection as bindings, spine labels, endleaves, and page dividers.

SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10 Cicero (Mainz 1465) printed on vellum

Books printed on vellum would be the exception, sometimes specially commissioned, and more highly valued than the larger run of paper copies. A few copies printed on vellum are a common feature of limited editions and particularly of the output of private presses, including the Kelmscott Press

A prime example of a prized book printed on vellum is the 1888 Roxburghe Club edition (SPEC H91.36) which was, appropriately, the first printing of a 15th-century manuscript.

The fine collection of private press books bequeathed by William Noble includes (SPEC Noble A.22.18) one of the 10 copies printed on vellum (out of an edition of 210 copies in all) of the Eragny Press edition of Keats La belle dame sans merci (1896).

SPEC Noble A.22.18. One of 10 copies printed on vellum.

Noble’s bequest also contains many copies printed on ‘Japon (Japanese) vellum’ – not in fact parchment of any kind, but a particularly durable paper prepared to resemble vellum.

‘Limp vellum’ or limp parchment is a term used to describe bindings common in the 16th and 17th centuries, which might be simple undecorated wrappers or ornately decorated, for example the 1595 works of Tacitus at SPEC Y59.T4.2. Later books are also commonly half- or quarter-bound in parchment.

SPEC Y59.T4.2. vellum binding, with tape added to secure by wrapping around the volume.

U is for Uncut or Unopened

U is for Uncut or Unopened

Unopened books or pamphlets are unreadable until the top and front edges of the folded and bound or unbound gatherings have been sliced through to separate the individual leaves (see our earlier post on format).

SCA has an example of a book which has remained unopened for over 300 years: SPEC J10.1(14). But fortunately the digitized copy from Eighteenth Century Collections Online gives access to the text.

SPEC J10.1. (14). Select epistles of Phalaris, the Tyrant of Agrigentum (1718).

Uncut may be used by the unwary cataloguer when the term unopened would be more accurate: uncut has the specific bibliographical meaning that the book has survived with the rough edges (deckle edges) of its pages untrimmed by bookbinders. This makes it easier to see many kinds of bibliographical evidence about the book’s production. Uncut or untrimmed pages are unusual, since books were issued unbound, or in a temporary binding for the purchaser to have bound up to the mid 19th-century development of the publisher’s binding.

A modern example of a book showing the edges of the handmade sheet of paper is SPEC Zaina E.73 no.5 – the difference from the trimmed copy at SPEC Zaina E.73 no.195 is clear when they are side-by-side.

SPEC Zaina E.73 showing deckle and trimmed edges.

Uncut copies of a book also have the virtue of retaining all of the text and any later annotations, which are often lost when the page edges are trimmed or cropped in the process of binding and rebinding, successively reducing the margins. Untrimmed copies may be described as ‘tall copies’, to differentiate them from copies printed on larger sheets of paper (large paper copies’). The difference in size can be seen by placing the trimmed copy of SPEC Zaina E.73 on top of the untrimmed copy.

SPEC Zaina E.73 trimmed copy no.195 on top of untrimmed copy no. 5.

Still unsure? The Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, recommends using untrimmed instead of uncut and explains why in their blog post Uncut, unopened, untrimmed, uh-oh

T is for Title-page

Like so many elements of book design (bindings, bookplates, typography), the appearance of the title-page has been subject to fashions, and the amount of information offered on a title-page has varied over time accordingly. For example, whilst the earliest title-pages were relatively simple, in the 17th century it became standard practice to cram as much information as possible onto the title-page – with extensive sub-titles and detailed author and publisher information, often in multiple types, and within decorative frames. This trend died off in the 18th century, as a tendency for more simply set-out title-pages (often accompanied by half titles) took its place. This pattern repeated; the 19th century saw a return to more elaborate title-pages, whereas the emergence of modernism accompanied a more stripped-back approach in the 20th century.

As engraving came to be used more widely in book illustration from the late 16th century, engraved title-pages emerged. Occasionally books contained additional engraved title-pages alongside a letterpress title-page, as in the example below.

The earliest of printed books do not contain title-pages at all however; nor do most medieval manuscripts. Instead, these texts are generally identified by the “incipit” and “explicit” – the opening and closing words of the text, from the Latin verb incipere (‘to begin’) and explicitus, meaning ‘unrolled’.

An example of an incipit from a work printed in 1481.

Early printed books often closed with a “colophon” – a closing statement, providing, for example, the name of those involved in the book’s production (scribe, printer, publisher), and place and date of publication.

Earlier in this series we met the half-title page: here it is worth noting that the history of the half-title page, as outlined in this earlier post, also helps to reveal how it was that the title-page came to be – “printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound”; a “blank sheet originally intended for protection came to be marked with a short-title in order to help differentiate one text-block from another, and it was this that then developed into the full title-page, with publication details as well as author and title.”

References and further reading:

Smith, Margaret M. “Title-page” in Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

Smith, Margaret M. The title-page: its early development 1460-1510, 2000.

British Library, Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, 2018

S is for Subscription

From the 17th to the early 19th century, and occasionally since then, books might be issued ‘on subscription,’ to solicit orders in advance of publication from subscribers attracted by a preliminary proposal. A printed list of subscribers’ names would often appear in the published work. The first known subscription list is that for the second edition (1625) of John Minsheu’s Guide into Tongues (SPEC Knowsley 349/oversize but without the list of subscribers).

Books whose publication was financed by subscription typically included particularly expensive books (for example highly illustrated books), specialist works (for example scientific and musical works), privately printed books, or special copies (for example, ‘large paper’ copies printed on a larger size of paper) making up part of an edition. The response to the subscription helped gauge the market for the work prior to publication and acted as a guarantee for the bookseller’s outlay on publication costs.

Subscription proposal for Milton’s Works (1757). SPEC Knows. pamph. 264
Receipt for the Countess of Derby’s first payment for Milton’s Poetical Works. Signed by Thomas Houlston.

The lists of subscribers in the published work were often arranged hierarchically, giving the most eminent names first, and might include addresses and occupations. William Enfield’s 1773 Essay towards the history of Leverpool included views and a plan separately so subscribers could choose which parts of the work they wanted.

References and further reading:

  • Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford, 2010)
  • John Carter and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth edition (Oak Knoll and British Library, 2006)
  • P. J. Wallis, Book Subscription Lists: Extended Supplement to the Revised Guide (1996) and ‘Book Subscription Lists,’ Library 5/29 (1974)

Q is for quarter-bound

A binding which covers only the spine and the edge of the boards nearest the spine is described as ‘quarter binding.’ The amount of the board covered varies, but the binding may indeed cover one quarter, hence its name.

Quarter bindings, which use less material – leather, parchment, cloth, paper, depending on date and style – are cheaper than half bindings which cover the spine and back edge of the boards plus the outer corners of the boards. Half and quarter bindings may be described as quarter calf, half parchment, etc, naming the binding material used on the spine. Full calf, for example, describes a binding in which the full extent of the spine and boards is covered in the same material.

Common styles of binding can help to identify where and when an item was bound, or may be a recognisable ‘uniform’ such as the ‘Roxburghe style’ used for the publications of the Roxburghe Club. Their quarter bindings have a spine of brown or black leather, with the title tooled in gold, and the sides are dark-red paper-board. More recently, morocco and buckram have been used in the same colour scheme.

SPEC G.02.05: Roxburghe style binding

From the 17th century onwards, and notably in the 18th and 19th centuries, as it became usual to shelve books with the spines outward, the spines of quarter- or half-bound books lent themselves to decorative display.

SPEC Zaina C.10: leather spine decorated with gilt-tooling and colour onlay, and marbled paper boards on Paris, 1887 edition of Gautier.

P is for Paste-down

‘Endleaves’, or ‘endpapers’ are the first blank leaves of paper you come across when opening the book, and the final blank pages at the end. Found between the front or rear of the main textblock and the front and rear covers of the book, then, they are intended to protect the first leaves of text. The ‘paste-down’ is the half of the first sheet of endpapers which has been  adhered to the inside of the boards or cover of the book (literally, pasted down). Endleaves that are not pasted-down to the cover or boards are usually described as being ‘free’.

This image shows the rear paste-down, and rear free endpaper. An ownership inscription can be seen on the paste-down, which also contains a booksellers price label, and further markings in pencil.

Paste-down is a useful term to know because it appears regularly in catalogue records. This is primarily because the paste-downs of a book are often where we find a number of interesting features – such as ownership inscriptions, bookplates, bookseller’s labels, previous classmarks – which have been added after publication and help to tell the unique history of that particular book (to use another ‘p’ term, we call this the book’s provenance).

All of the hundreds of bound volumes of pamphlets from the Knowsley Hall Library collection contain precise details of their location within the library on the front paste-down.
Bookseller’s label on a colourful paste-down.

Another reason paste-downs may be of particular interest is that they can sometimes feature coloured or patterned paper:

In this image the endpaper is comprised of a colourful patterned endleaf, and contains the bookplate of the Bebington Free Library, reflecting the history of the book.

O is for Ornament

Headpiece on a sermon of 1717: SPEC LGP 425. ESTC T45992.

Printer’s ornaments are small decorative woodcuts or metal cuts used in letterpress printing as fillers on title-pages, and to demarcate the beginning and end of chapters or other sections.

Factotum containing initial T. SPEC LGP 425.

They may be described as head-pieces (at the head or top of the page) or tail-pieces (at the end or foot of the page); larger images may be described as vignettes. Ornaments include the large initials used to mark the opening section of text, and factotums, which form a decorative border into which any letter can be inserted in printing. Fleurons are flowers or other small pieces of ornamental typography.

Fleurons on the half-title of SPEC LGP 425.

Woodcut ornaments in particular show the wear and tear of repeated use, and can be used in dating and localizing publications, although in practice type may have been loaned or sold between printers. A change of ornament can also be used to identify a variant printing. In rare cases where the ledgers of a printing business survive, such as those for the firm of William Bowyer, ornaments provide rich supplementary evidence to identify anonymous printing by comparison with known imprints.

Ornament used to identify a false imprint on The monosyllable If! A satire. SPEC G12A.19. ESTC T170098

Although ornaments are generally decorative and are not used to illustrate a specific accompanying text, they may be pictorial in themselves, and are a charmingly various source for design history.


Tailpiece on SPEC LGP 425.

N is for Nuremberg Chronicle

The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum in Latin or Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten in German) is one of the most important books in the history of printing.

Produced on commission from Nuremberg merchants Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503) in 1493, the 600 page text is attributed to Nuremberg doctor and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Drawing heavily from earlier, medieval and Renaissance sources, Schedel purports to tell the history of the Christian world from its creation to the time of writing. The text incorporates its fair share of myth and fable – with geographical and historical information on European counties and towns written alongside tales of epidemics, monsters and comets.

What makes this work remarkable however, is not so much the text itself, but rather the beauty and skill of the images that accompany it – bringing to life the biblical and historical events, major cities and important figures from myth and history within the text. Indeed, the Nuremberg Chronicle is the most lavishly illustrated book of the 15th century. In total, the work boasts 1809 images, produced using 645 woodblocks, many of which were used more than once. A mere 72 blocks were used for the 596 portraits of emperors, popes and other celebrities, for example – so each was used to represent 8 or 9 different people, changing only the caption.

As you can see from the above image, the woodcut images were incorporated closely within the letterpress text. A feat of considerable technical skill on the part of those involved in its production, this resulted in a particularly elegant and satisfying mise-en-page. To enable this, the work was first carefully planned in manuscript drafts (called ‘exemplars’) before printing. Remarkably, complete exemplars of both the Latin and the German edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle survive, and indicate that the images were sketched first, with the text inscribed to fit within the remaining space.

The “Dance of Death”
Double-page map.

The woodcuts and exemplars for the Nuremberg Chronicle were produced by Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c.1460-1494), and the work was printed and published by Anton Koberger (1445-1513) – the largest printer and publisher in Germany at the time. Koberger printed the Latin version on the 12th July 1493, with a German translation following shortly after, on 23rd December 1493. The University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) is fortunate enough to hold three copies of the 1493 Latin edition, and one of the German translation. A final copy of the Chronicle in SC&A is a pirated edition, printed by Johann Schönsperger (d. 1520) in Augsberg in 1500.

That SC&A holds so many copies of such an early printed book is perhaps rendered a little less surprising when we learn that no other 15th century book survives in as many copies as the Nuremberg Chronicle, undoubtedly an indication of its popularity at the time, as well as its enduring interest to collectors and researchers alike. Indeed, the SC&A copies were given to us by some of the most important donors in the history of the library – Charles Sydney Jones, Henry Tate, Thomas Glazebrook Rylands and Robert George Morton, and we were recently very excited to have all five SC&A copies of this important work on display in the reading room at one time, having beeen ordered up by Dr. Nina Adamova, as part of her research into marginalia in copies of the Chronicle. 

Large flourished initial in gold and colours on folio 1 of the copy of the Chronicle donated to SC&A by Robert George Morton in 1969.

References and further reading:

Wilson, Adrian. The making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. (1976)

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, ed. Worlds of learning: the library and world chronicle of the Nuremberg physician Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). (2015)