Met by Accident: A Beaten Book

Today’s guest post is written by Julia Miller, a book conservator who studies, writes, lectures, and instructs about historical binding structures. In collaboration with the Guild of Bookworkers New York Chapter, Ms. Miller will speak at The New York Academy of Medicine on June 27th at 6pm, “Meeting by Accident,” about types of bookbinding and delve into the what, why, and how questions concerning historical bindings. 

When I wrote my second book Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings, I drew on interesting bookbindings encountered in recent years. I wish my book had been published a bit later than it was, just so I could include the book I describe to you here.

Fig. 1

Spine, upper cover, and lower text edge of the Guthrie book. All photographs courtesy of Randel Stegmeyer.

Not long after Meeting by Accident was published, I found a book that immediately intrigued me because it carried an interesting, and to me, unusual direction to the binder: “The Binder is desired to beat the Book before he places the Maps.” It appears on page 10 following the Preface in William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World. (The Thirteenth Edition, Corrected. London, Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry; and G.G.J. and J. Robinson, in Pater-noster Row. 1792.)[1]. Beating book sections to flatten them prior to sewing was a common binding practice at one time but fell out of use and out of our collective memory; the mention of this old practice in the binders’ direction reminds us. The flatness of the text leaves (and the near-absence of “bite” to the printed text) indicates the binder of this volume followed the direction to beat the book.

Fig. 4

Detail director to binder in William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World.


The book measures 22 H x 13.8 W x 8 T in centimeters. It is worn, with losses to the brown sheepskin cover, and much repaired. The detached boards were oversewn to reattach them to the text block, and the spine rebacked with a strip of tawed skin. There is evidence of sewing in two- or three-on style [for a primer on three-on sewing click here] and later oversewing to secure loosened sections. The text block shows heavy use and damage: finger dirt, stains, and damaged edges.

Why is this book of reference interesting to the history of hand bookbinding? In 2013, conservator and bookbinder Jeffrey S. Peachey published his ground-breaking examination of beating books, “Beating, Rolling, and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Volume I of Suave Mechanicals – Essays on the History of Bookbinding.[2] His essay is an exercise in detection and is fascinating to read. Jeff discusses the history, tools, and methods of flattening book leaves, noting that it is sometimes impossible to tell if sections of a given book were beaten in the traditional way, or if sections were rolled or pressed instead. Guthrie’s book, at least the thirteenth edition, carries the type of evidence we need, in the wording of the direction to the binder, to establish that this is probably a beaten book. Peachey mentioned in a recent email that he has seen similar directions in other 17th and 18th century books.

Fig. 5

Fore edge of Guthrie book.

A comparison study of other copies from this thirteenth edition of Guthrie, and earlier/later editions, looking for the same binders’ direction and evidence of beating, plus searching out other imprints carrying similar directions to the binder, would be a valuable and interesting research project; and I hope one of you reading this post will undertake it!

[1] The Academy Library has the 1794 edition.
[2] Ed. Julia Miller. 317-382. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2013.