Everyone’s familiar with the smell of old books, the weirdly intoxicating scent that haunts libraries and second-hand book stores.
Similarly, who doesn’t enjoy riffling through the pages of a newly purchased book and breathing in the crisp aroma of new paper and freshly printed ink? As with all aromas, the origins can be traced back to a number of chemical constituents, so we can examine the processes and compounds that can contribute to both.
As far as the smell of new books goes, it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint specific compounds, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there seems to be a scarcity of scientific research that’s been carried out on the subject – to be fair, it’s understandable why it might not exactly be high up on the priority list.
Secondly, the variation in the chemicals used to manufacture books also means that it’s an aroma that will vary from book to book. Add to this the fact that there are literally hundreds of compounds involved, and it becomes clearer why it evades attribution to a small selection of chemicals.
It’s likely that the bulk of ‘new book smell’ can be put down to three main sources: the paper itself (and the chemicals used in its manufacture), the inks used to print the book, and the adhesives used in the book-binding process.
The manufacture of paper requires the use of chemicals at several stages. Large amounts of paper are made from wood pulp (though it can also be made from cotton and textiles) – chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, often referred to in this context as ‘caustic soda’, can be added to increase pH and cause fibres in the pulp to swell.
The fibres are then bleached with a number of other chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide; then, they are mixed with large amounts of water. This water will contain additives to modify the properties of the the paper – for example, AKD (alkyl ketene dimer) is commonly used as a ‘sizing agent’ to improve the water-resistance of the paper.
Many other chemicals are also used – this is just a very rough overview. The upshot of this is that some of these chemicals can contribute, through their reactions or otherwise, to the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, the odours of which we can detect.
The same is true of chemicals used in the inks, and the adhesives used in the books. A number of different adhesives are used for book-binding, many of which are based on organic ‘co-polymers’ – large numbers of smaller molecules chemically chained together.
As stated, differences in paper, adhesives, and inks used will influence the ‘new book smell’, so not all new books will smell the same – perhaps the reason why no research has yet attempted to definitively define the aroma.
Marbled paper has been used for centuries in bookbinding, generally as endpapers—front and back—sometimes as outside decorative covers.
It is made by floating pigments upon a mucilaginous “size”, arranging the chosen colors as desired using toothed combs and other tools, then laying a sheet of paper or fabric onto the floating pattern to pick it up. It is a graphic printmaking process really—no two prints are exactly alike.
In 1881, C. W. Woolnough described marbling as “this pretty, mysterious art.” He also said, “This process is not very easy to describe, and yet to anyone beholding it for the first time it appears extremely simple and easy to perform, yet the difficulties are many, and the longer one practices it, the more he becomes convinced that there is ample room for fresh discoveries and more interesting results than any that have yet been accomplished.”
In recent decades, modern marblers have indeed done wonderfully interesting things with the process, ranging from beautifully crafted classic designs to representational images and scenes . . . fish, flowers, landscapes, all sorts of things. An article I wrote for the August 1978 issue of American Artist magazine (oftentimes available on eBay) details the basic process, and shows a few examples.
The naming of marbled paper designs is complex and confusing. Names have been assigned over the past two or three centuries variously in various places. Many patterns are commonly known by several different names.
During the Tokugawa period, the process for producing a book was a collaboration of artists and craftsmen and women. First the text would be given to the copyist, or hanshitagaki (the copy was called the hanshita).
The copied text would be given to the block carver, horishi. The carved block would be passed to the printer – surishi – and after printing to another worker for page alignment. The maker of covers was the hyoshiya.
Book covers would be paper with thick backing; from about the 17th century onward, design became an important part of commercialization and marketing.
By early Meiji the covers were stiffer, made of cardboard. The printed pages and covers would be passed to a binder who sewed them together.
Then the completed work (with printed protective paper wrappers, beginning in the second half of Tokugawa) would be sent to the bookseller.
In the Tokugawa period, book covers began to evolve from simple undecorated colored paper to more artistic design work.
Sometimes the color of the cover would be based on content. In Edo in the 18th century it was common for lighter genres of fiction to have different color covers, the genre names derived from the color: akahon “red books” and kibyoshi “yellow covers.”vi In the seventeenth century, literary works began to regularly include illustrations; artists were named in colophons.
Book cover designs became more elaborate, with embossed or burnished paper designs, and later color woodblock prints from popular ukiyo-e artists. In the 19th century, lavish color woodblock covers were made for the elaborately designed illustrated popular fiction books called gōkan.vii
With larger firms, all the book trade craftspeople would work together in-house – “but smaller-scale publishers contracted some parts of the process out to sub-contracting specialists like block-carvers and binders, and cover-makers ran their own separate firms from the early seventeenth century onwards.”
Bookbinders did not get credit like publishers/booksellers, artists or designers. Sometimes copyists and block carvers were named in colophon, but rarely binders.
Women worked as binders during the Tokugawa period. Peter Kornicki, in The book in Japan: a cultural history from the beginnings to the nineteenth century, says: “… although the whole process of production and distribution of books is commonly presented as if it were exclusively male, this picture needs some correction … it seems that bookbinding was often undertaken, at least in 19th century, by women in the publisher’s household, and there is a record in a book published in 1716 to the effect that copyist responsible for the clean copy or hanshita was a woman.
Here are some illustrations of different styles of book covers:
Chandler & Price was founded in 1881 in Cleveland, Ohio, by Harrison T. Chandler and William H. Price.
They manufactured machinery for printers including a series of hand-fed platen jobbing presses, as well as an automatic feeder for these presses (the Rice Feeder).
They also made paper cutters (Guillotines) as well as book presses, and assorted equipment.
Despite dominating the industry in the 1930s, by the 1950s the offset printing industry had eclipsed the world of movable type printing, and only Chandler & Price and Brandtjen and Kluge continued to make open platen presses (named Gordon after the original inventor).
Chandler & Price had bought the patent for the Gordon after the inventor’s death. Chandler & Price, the Company ceased production of presses in 1964.
The New Style Press made by Chandler & Price was such a popular press that The Practice Of Printing: Letterpress and Offset by Ralph Polk, the standard textbook for thousands of high school printing programs in the middle of the 20th century, used the press as its example when teaching students the basics of press operation.
The first ever books in the world were the Egyptian papyrus rolls, which were composed of several columns of ancient writing scripts. The first of these manuscripts goes back as far as the 25th BC, and until the Christian era, they remained quite popular.
However, during this period, the paper or the book industry underwent a transformation, and parchment started replacing the Egyptian papyrus rolls. Writing on parchments was arranged in parallel columns, and vertical lines were used to separate one column from another.
This particular pattern gave rise to the idea of cutting the parchments into flat panels, which comprised of either three or four columns. Later on, this form evolved into the books we see today.
Books have been part of the world since the early ages, and so the need to bind them together has also been present since then. In the olden days, a much different binding concept was used than what exists today.
The Egyptian papyrus rolls were stored in a tubular binding. The parchments were also often wrapped up in a roll, and secured with a ribbon.
However, when parchments started being cut into paneled forms, the binding also evolved. The new binding was more convenient to use and remained durable for longer than the tubular form. As such, it became the preferred choice.
In the beginning, the paneled parchments were hinged along any one of the edges, and were bounded with stitches or a lacing.
The columnar arrangement of writing was prevalent even at that time, particularly so for the Latin books.
Generally, the Romans used three to four columns to separate content on a single parchment. This style has been transferred down the generations, and exists even today.
Several published papers, journals, textbooks and reference books have pages that have been divided into two or three columns. Adopting this style makes the text easier and quicker to read.
There are also many books which differ from this, and consist of only a single column. As such, their sizes are also reduced so that the text becomes more legible.
Autumn by Robert Mudie / Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa
by Christopher Jobson.
Colleen Theisen who helps with outreach and instruction at the Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa shared an amazing gif she made that demonstrates something called fore-edge painting on the edge of a 1837 book called Autumn by Robert Mudie.
Fore-edge painting, which is believed to date back as early as the 1650s, is a way of hiding a painting on the edge of a book so that it can only be seen when the pages are fanned out.
There are even books that have double fore-edge paintings, where a different image can be seen by flipping the book over and fanning the pages in the opposite direction.
Spring by Robert Mudie / Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa
When I realized the book Theisen shared was only one of a series about the seasons, I got in touch and she agreed to photograph the other three so we could share them with you here.
Above are photos of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter which were donated to the University of Iowa by Charlotte Smith.