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: