Those of you, who, from the title above, are expecting an article on bondage involving some ennobled aristocrat born on the wrong side of the blanket, click away now, as you are doomed to disappointment if you continue reading. However, for those of you who have surmised that this article will focus on an arcane secret from the history of books, enlightenment, and I hope a small measure of amusement, will be yours if you persevere to the end of this account.
The bastard title, a now slowly vanishing aspect of book making, from its origins through the Regency…
The bastard title is a page in a book. In fact, for more than three hundred years, it was the first page of the text-block in nearly every book that was printed. For those of you who prefer a more decorous term, this first page, really a leaf, is also known as the half-title or the fly-title. It can still be found in some hard-cover books today. It is the first printed page in the book, found immediately after the plain, unprinted fly-leaf, from which it derives one of its names. The fly-leaf itself is not part of the text-block, it is actually part of the binding of the book, as its left half is pasted to the inside of the front of the book cover while its right half is left to "fly" free. The fly-title is the first leaf of the text-block, on the recto of which is printed only the title of the book. Typically, the next page is the full title page of the book, which also includes the sub-title, if there is one, plus the publisher’s name and place of publication, and, often, the copyright date. Then what is the point of the fly-title, if the very next page is a full title page?
Initially, protection and easy identification of the text-block. Long past the Regency and into the early reign of Queen Victoria, book printing and book-binding were still often two quite separate activities. Those who printed books, and even those who sold them, did not usually get involved with the binding of them. That was nearly always left to the person who bought the text-block of the book. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a large print-run for a book was a hundred books, very often for buyers who had paid in advance. As soon as the book was printed and folded down into a text-block, each would be delivered to its new owner. The owner would send the text-block off to their book-binder for binding. Bookshops as we know them today did not yet exist. But by the seventeenth century, there were many more readers and writers and print-runs of books ran into the multiple hundreds. And by this time, there were also professional book-sellers all over the country who made all these many books available to those who wished to acquire them. However, if you were to walk into a book-seller’s shop near the middle of the seventeenth century, it would look very different than does a bookshop today. You would certainly have seen nearly wall-to-wall shelves, but upon them you would have seen lots of drawers with square fronts, each bearing a label. Rather like rows and rows of old-fashioned file cabinet drawers, ranging from large drawers on the lower shelves to smaller ones on the top shelves. And, inside each of those drawers would be stacks of text-blocks of whichever book was noted on the drawer’s label. Because book printers knew these text-blocks would be first transported in crates then stacked in drawers, they had long printed books so that the first page of the text block was left blank, to protect the title page beneath from dirt and damage. But sometime after the middle of the seventeenth century, some clever printer got the idea of printing just the title of the book on that first, blank page, making it easier to identify which text-block was which, while still protecting the title page. Both book-sellers and book-buyers appreciated this added feature and soon all book printers were doing the same. Thus was born the bastard title.
Not by nature wasteful, our ancestors soon saw another important use for that handy bastard title leaf. Not only did it identify the unbound text-block, it could continue to identify the book once it was bound. From the Middle Ages, when books were all written out with quill and ink on parchment or vellum and bound by hand, these extremely valuable objects had to be protected. And so they were, very often with chains. In most monastic and college libraries, and even in the libraries and book rooms of some private book owners, well into the seventeenth century, bound books, even those which had been printed on paper, were chained to the shelves or reading tables where they were stored. The bindings of these books might be carved and gilded wood or tooled leather, oftentimes studded with precious or semi-precious stones. But in most cases, the carving and tooling of book covers was of designs and motifs which pleased the owner of the book, enhanced the decor of his book room and/or displayed his wealth and taste. Book bindings were works of art which protected a text-block. It had not yet dawned on anyone that the title of the book should be part of the cover design, since most book collections were so small, it was easy enough to identify a book by the color and ornamentation of its cover. And even if anyone had thought of it, putting the title of a book on the cover at this time would have served no purpose. Books chained to shelves and tables had the chains attached to the front edges of the cover, because that was the strongest part of the binding. Therefore, chained books which were stored on shelves were placed spine in, with the fore-edge out, since that is where the chain was attached. These books would be stacked lying on their sides as often as standing upright, but in nearly all cases with the fore-edge out. As libraries and book collections grew, many book owners began to write the title of the book on the fore-edge of the text-block, so they could identify each book when it was closed and on the shelf, spine in, as was common at that time.
By the early eighteenth century, though few libraries still chained their books to the shelves or tables, books were still stored on shelves with the spine in and the fore-edge out. And many book owners found the appearance of their bookshelves most untidy and unattractive, with many of the book titles hand-written on the fore-edges of their books. Then, someone, owner or book-binder, we know not, got the idea of removing the bastard title leaf from the book before it was bound. The bastard title was then trimmed to just below the title printed on the leaf and the upper section of that leaf was pasted into the front cover of the book, with the printed title protruding beyond the edge of the front cover. Once the paste had dried, the leaf was carefully folded back so that the printed title covered most, if not all, of the fore-edge of the book. Thus, when the book was placed on the shelf, spine in and fore-edge out, a nice, tidy printed version of the book title was visible. The bastard title served yet another useful purpose and remained with the book whose text-block it had once protected.
As the eighteenth century progressed, book covers became more restrained in their ornamentation and the wooden boards were more often covered with leather than not. It became common to stamp or hand-tool the title of the book into the leather of the now plainer front cover. Even though book-binding techniques had improved and the spine of a book cover was by then usually quite sturdy, it does not appear to have occurred to most book owners to shelve their books with the spine facing out. Probably also for that same reason, book-binders did not bother to stamp or tool the title of the book onto the spine, since it would not usually be seen. Finally, by the middle of the eighteenth century, book owners did begin to shelve their books with the spines facing out, and at that point, the bastard title still had an important function. For books already in their libraries, which had the bastard title pasted inside the front cover and the title folded over the fore-edge, book owners carefully cut off the part of the leaf with the title and then pasted that strip to the spine of the book. For new books, they instructed their book-binder to cut out the printed title on the bastard title leaf and paste that to the spine of the book once it was bound. It was only after this had become common book-binding practice that some book-binder, or perhaps owner, finally got the idea of stamping the book title into the leather of the book’s spine, instead of pasting a strip of paper there. By the early nineteenth century, it was almost universal book-binding practice to stamp the book title into the spine of the cover, and many book-binders were no longer bothering to stamp the title into the front cover of the book, unless requested to do so by the book’s owner. Which gave rise to rather a tempest in a tea-pot: what was to be the ultimate fate of the bastard title?
In the nineteenth century, the bastard title was still printed as part of nearly every text-block, serving its original purpose, to protect the main title page, right through the Regency. And as had been the case for well over a century, many people who bought books, particularly avid collectors and bibliophiles, would have them bound by their own book-binder. These bibliophiles, as had book collectors like Samuel Pepys before them, had a regular book-binder, just as they did a tailor, a hatter or a boot-maker. Particularly for regular customers purchasing from London book-sellers, the text-block of a collector’s new acquisition would be sent by the book-seller directly to that customer’s book-binder, as a service to the customer. Most regular book-buyers would have standing orders with their book-binder on how they wanted their books to be bound. Some wanted one color binding for the books to be kept in their London town house, and another for books to be kept at their country house. Others wanted different colors for different categories of books, such as blue for histories, green for the classics, red for literature, brown for land and livestock management. The book-binder would also have known their client’s preferences for the types of leather, the surface design and even the typefaces to be used in stamping the titles into the covers. But what of the bastard title?
To bind or not to bind? So raged this little controversy right through the Regency. Some book-binders were of the opinion that the bastard title had served its purpose by protecting the main title page until the text-block arrived at the book-binder. After that, it was dispensable and should be removed from the text-block before the book was bound. Others considered the bastard title a permanent part of the book and therefore it should be bound in position, along with all the other pages, if the book was to be considered complete once it was bound. There were even occasional "notes" or "hints" to "book-lovers" to be found in various publications which advised book owners never to allow their book-binder to remove the bastard or half-title before a book was bound, as was a common practice by some book-binders, since it was part of the book and should be retained. The majority of book owners gave orders to their book-binders to bind the bastard title into the book, and there are indications that some became quite annoyed if their orders were not followed. It is unknown if any bibliophile ever switched book-binders due to a missing bastard title in a newly-bound book.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, books were typically both printed and bound by the publisher, increasingly by machine. And by then, it had become standard to bind the bastard title into most books. Thus, the bastard title survived into the twentieth century, but only the first half. By the later decades of the twentieth century, the bastard title was beginning to disappear, first from mass market paperback books, and by the end of the century, from most soft cover books as well. Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, even some hard-cover books are printed and bound without a bastard title. Few publishers today have any idea of the origin and early uses of the bastard title and many are looking to cut costs in any way they can. Will what was once a standard feature of nearly every book printed for more than three centuries disappear completely by the end of this century? It is very possible. But at least now, if you open a book and find a bastard title just behind the fly-leaf, you will know why it is there and that it did have a purpose, once upon a time. And if you should open a book without a bastard title, will you miss it, if it is not there?