Monday, October 16, 2023

Disbinding Bradel, Part 1: Who was Bradel? Does it Matter?

This is the first in series of articles that grew out of the research that went into my workshop on the ur-form of what we call the Bradel given to students and staff at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and University Libraries on October 1 -2, 2021. As part of the William Anthony Lecture Series it was supported by the Nadia Sophie Seiler Fund and the University of Iowa Libraries & Center for the Book.

I had originally considered formally publishing this in a journal, but for a variety of reasons I am serializing here at the Pressbengel Project, perhaps somewhat less formally. Advantages of online publication include the ability to embed video... When completed, the posts will be combined into a downloadable form. The title, "Disbinding Bradel" was originally suggested by Jeff Peachey. I am also grateful to Susie Cobbledick, Guild of Book Workers Journal co-editor, for her thoughts on converting my hand-out into an article.

To Disbinding Bradel, Part 2: A walk through the German bookbinding literature, in which I will focus on the evolution of that which defines this structure – the spine piece and board attachment. 

What do we (primarily in the English-speaking world) mean when we refer to a "Bradel" binding, what are its origins, and how, and what did it evolve into?  Originally, the structure consisted of a single piece spine stiffener and a connecting strip attached to the text block, with the boards then attached as the binding was completed working outwards from the text. Over time, that evolved into a separate spine stiffener and a connecting strip of paper to which the boards were attached. 

The images below are of a binding of Lessing's Works (Berlin, 1838) in my collection. 

Here, book closed, the one-piece spine and connector construction. 

The book open.

Pappbänder: 1812, 1825. 1842.

This question of the origin of the structure came to the fore when I was asked to present a hands-on workshop on the original, ur-form of the Bradel to students and staff as part of the William Anthony Conservation Lecture Series at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and the Libraries' Conservation Lab. 

I was trained in, and am very familiar with the modern form of the German case binding covered in paper and its variant forms, and nowhere does that descriptor of "Bradel" appear in the German manuals, historical and contemporary. Instead, one finds Pappband (paper binding), gebrochene Rücken (referring to the way the spine piece and cover are constructed), and variants of these structures. I have described several of the modern German variants in published tutorials linked to from here, but have not until now traced the evolution of the structure from its origins. The structure also appears in other national traditions, in particular the French, often with nuanced differences. Still, there are questions about the original form and history of this structure, one most often associated with German books of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

One thing that stands out is that most English-language publications on this and related structures are based on observational studies of period bindings. Manuals describing the structure in whatever language are seldom referenced, a challenge when the sources and language are not known or accessible to the researcher.

In his "Teaching Genealogies of American Hand Bookbinders" (Guild of Book Workers' Journal, Vol XXVIII, 1990. 3-4) Tom Conroy wrote:

The low profile of the German element in American hand binding is hard to understand, although several factors can be identified. German-tradition binders have added little to the English-language literature of binding; and little has been translated from German. Much of the German contribution to the common pool has been forwarding and technique rather than design finishing. The German tradition has contributed little to the philosophy of binding in America (this comes largely from the English Arts and Crafts movement); and in aesthetics American binders have tended to follow the French in aping painting and the fine arts.

Having regularly been asked to find and translate German sources for colleagues researching and writing articles, this was a challenge I am very familiar with and enjoy. Thanks to my paper-based reference library and digital collections, I was able to trace the evolution of the structure in the German tradition back to Zeidler in 1708. Not a Bradel to be found ... 

So, the question of "who was Bradel" and what is his connection to the structure remained. Let's see what we can find out about this structure's namesake [in the English and French-speaking worlds].
In English, a good starting point is searching lexica like Don Etherington's Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books, where the Bradel is described as:

A type of binding having a hollow back, and not unlike a library binding, except that it is considered to be temporary. The style was originated in Germany by Alexis Pierre Bradel, also known as Bradel l'ainé, and also as Bradel-Derome, son-in-law and successor to Nicholas-Denis Derôme. The style was taken to France sometime between 1772 and 1809. Bradel bindings generally have split boards into which are attached the extensions of the spine lining cloth. The edges are uncut, sometimes with the head edge being gilt. They generally have a leather or linen spine. In France the style was known as "Cartonnage à la Bradel", or as "en gist".

Ligitus the Language of Bindings Thesaurus (LoB) is "intended to provide a consistent and agreed terminology to be used by anybody working with historic books, such as conservators..." It is the only lexicon that uses the term "gebrochener Rücken" in describing the Bradel as:

The German term for the three-piece case, 'gebrochener Rücken', meaning literally 'broken back', is presumably a reference to splitting a one-piece case into two sides with a connecting spine-piece. This meant that it was possible to have a thinner flexible spine-piece that allowed the book to open whilst having a rigid board on each side to support and protect the book block, a dual function that was not possible with the one-piece case. The three-piece case was known in France at the end of the eighteenth century as the ‘reliure Bradel’ or ‘cartonnage à la Bradel’ having been introduced there, apparently, by a member of the Bradel family.

While being very general about the "who", it gets at the essence and functionality of the structure though I disagree with the translation of "gebrochener", a term that refers to the act of folding and creasing, in this case the piece of thin board/card that connects the boards. This is traced in detail in the literature review, in particular see Anweisung zur Buchbinderkunst (1802), Greve (1823), Thon (1856), and Adam (1898).

CERL, the Consortium of European Research Libraries, in its thesaurus describes Alexis-Pierre Bradel (d. 1760), "also known as Bradel l’Âiné as he carried on the work of his uncle Derome Le Jeune, as a well-known Parisian binder. Bradel moved to Germany, where he started a style of a temporary binding that later became very popular in Germany." Comparing these two sources, we start to have issues around Bradel's dates and his role." 

The bookbinding database of the French National Library,, has no record of an Alexis-Pierre Bradel. It does have a record for a Francoise-Paul Bradel (1757-1827) describing him as a "bookbinder belonging to a family dynasty of bookbinders, established in Paris since the end of the 17th century, one of whose members definitively ensured the durability of the name, which has now become a common name to designate a casing process that he would have imported from Germany to France in the 1770s. François-Paul Bradel is the son of Paul Bradel, master bookbinder in Paris, and Marie-Louise Le Cornu." 

Johann Denninger in his article "The 'Temporary' Binding of Alexis Pierre Bradel", The New Bookbinder (1996) goes much deeper than most. He described Bradel as a Bavarian "Maesterbuchbinder" who arrived in Paris ca 1800 and introduced the technique. The technique itself was "simply an imitation of the German binding made by the bookbinder Lichtscheid, who was working in Vienna in 1800. Lichtscheid, a famous bookbinder at the time, stated that he made his bindings using the Dutch of the time as an example." Denninger goes on to write that "around 1820 Bradel's friend (and later enemy) Lesné took over and adapted the original form as a 'German binding'. Denninger mentioned a La Reliure, toutes les operations de la reliure (1827) by Séb Le Normand. This was found in Gallica as Manuel du relieur dans toutes ses parties (1827) where the structure was referred to as “Cartonnage allemand, dit à la Bradel” (German binding in paper, called Bradel). The manual was later published in several editions as Nouveau manuel complet du relieur with the description retained. 

From the 1827 edition:

The type of binding that has become known in Paris, was imported from Germany by a bookbinder who alone made it for some time, with this type of binding acquiring a certain reputation. When well executed, it has a number of advantages: it looks good enough on a library shelf; it is clean and can be made with solidity; the leaves are not so that works can be read for a long time as they were simply bound, and when it is they retain wide margins. Here's how it's done... (p 209)

The instructions for the technique described by Le Normand map 1:1 to the German manuals of the time. In addition to this background information on Bradel, Denninger purports to give instructions for Bradel's pre-1823 structure, admitting he has never seen one. Unfortunately, those instructions are seemingly for a hybrid Danish millimeter and modern German Edelpappband, known in the US as a "millimeter binding" or by North Bennet Street School Students as "Rubow". This combination makes the article on the whole confusing. [NOTE: Le Normande also appeared in German as Die Buchbinderkunst in Allen Ihren Verrichtungen (1832). See Part 2 ...]

Thanks to Jeff Peachey another source was able to weigh in. Emil Thonin in his encyclopedia Les Relieures Francais 1500-1800 (1893) listed pages of Bradels going back several hundred years. Of most relevance were his concluding remarks on a Bradel (pp. 219 – 221):

We are familiar with the so-called, German-inspired 'Bradel' bindings "because, says Lesné, Bradel was one of the first bookbinders who started to make them and because he makes them well enough". That being said, in another passage of his poem, he mentions him again, this time in a much less benevolent manner, speaking about those binders who claim to have invented some new system:

 With the help of a very amphibological jargon, he impresses the fools, and exposes himself to criticism; Such are the processes of Bradel, Cabanis, who charm the province and even all Paris. The one binds in the German style, And the other sews as in Holland.

Our poet speaking in the present tense, it seems obvious that the author of these bindings must have lived in 1820, but how do we identify which one of all these Bradels he was referring to? We give up on that, as well as we give up on trying to identify the other one that he quoted and whose talent presumably equaled that of Chaumont and Deboisseau, well regarded binders of the restoration period. (Thank you to Benjamin Elbel for this translation)

So, while we seem to have no definitive answer about who this Bradel was, the resources above seem to agree on an origin somewhere in Germany in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, and that the core elements of the structure are integral to many binding styles and their variants. From the memoirs of 19th century bookbinders such as Adam Henß (1780-1856), Paul Adam (1849-1931), and other mentions we know that bookbinders travelled widely during their journeyman years and sometimes emigrated, e.g. Germans to England in the 18th century. This process greatly facilitated the spread of ideas and techniques across Europe. So, does it really matter if we don't have a "who"? We do need an agreed upon descriptor for the base structure, though, no?

To Disbinding Bradel, Part 2: A walk through the German bookbinding literature, in which I will focus on the evolution of that which defines this structure – the spine piece and board attachment. 

As always, I welcome questions, references to additional sources, and other thoughts via the comments. Just remember to cite those sources. Thank you 

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