Now Published! British Butterflies - A History in Books

The Entomologist's Library

Sponsor of
UK Butterflies


This article was written as a chapter for my book but regrettably some of the content was excluded or abbreviated by the publishers due to lack of space. Much of this addenda was the work of Paul Sokoloff particularly regarding the manufacture and history of books and I thank him for this unpublished contribution. For the sake of clarity and completeness there is some repetition here from the original book’s text so addenda can in effect stand alone to read. It should be read in conjunction with “The Manufacture and Publication of Books” Section 1 Part 2 pages 15-17.

The Presentation and Binding of Butterfly Books

Early books were printed as collections of single or folded sheets, which were delivered to the owner as a bundle of paper. The pages were sewn together on hemp cords - and these cords were threaded into the covering boards. Leather or vellum was then glued to the covers, and because the cords stood proud on the spine, they formed transverse bands (raised bands) – typically between five and seven, depending on the size of the book. The problem with this design – a tight-back binding – was that the spine creased when the book opened, much in the way as today’s larger paperbacks do, and damaged lettering and labels.

As binding methods developed, the cords were sunk into the spine and a paper or card hollow was constructed on the spine so that when the book was opened, the spine moved away from the book, and did not deform. Whether through fashion or aesthetics, binders and book owners preferred to retain the illusion that their books were sewn on raised cords, so false bands were stuck to the hollow!

In the first half of the 17th century vellum tended to be used for binding, but from then on until the end of the 19th century calf was the leather of choice. This was easy to work with and, having no grain, easy to letter and tool. Usually the entire book was covered in leather – described as a full-calf binding. Perhaps with an eye to cost, the amount of leather used was gradually reduced. In half-binding, leather covered the spine and triangular pieces were used to cover and protect the corners of the book. Finally, quarter binding did away with the leather corners, leaving only the spine covered. In the last two bindings, the rest of the book was covered with either cloth or paper. Later, cheaper and more robust leather from goat skins was used. “Morocco” is one example of this type of leather.

The whole production process was laborious and labour intensive. Decoration of the book was carried out by hand. Most leather books were finished with gold leaf lettering applied either directly onto the book or onto a separate label-piece subsequently glued to the spine.

The next shift in binding techniques came when the book was sewn onto thinner cords, or cotton tape and a larger piece of cotton webbing – known as mull – was glued to the spine. The board covers and the outside spine – the “case” – were constructed separately. Because the case was essentially flat, it enabled the whole process to be mechanised and opened the way for all manner of materials and designs to be used on the covers. In the final stages of construction, the book was glued to the covers using the mull – with cords or tapes adding additional strength - and the end papers then glued over the inside covers. This process of case-binding is still in use today.

Cheaper books

Modern paperbacks are constructed using a technique known as perfect binding. In essence, the book is made from single sheets of paper, one of whose edges is dipped into an adhesive to form the spine. This is a quick, simple and inexpensive method of binding that removes the need for sewing. The technique was developed in Victorian times, and patented by William Hancock in 1836. It was inspired by the increasing availability of rubber products derived from the latex of tropical trees. The rubber used was caoutchouc (often, but incorrectly, called gutta percha). Unfortunately, this revolutionary material did not stand the test of time, and in most books bound in this manner, the caoutchouc has hardened and disintegrated into dusty brown granules. The worst examples are the books by Noel Humpheys, The Genera of British Butterflies and the companion volumes on Moths.

The 19th century saw a rapid increase in literacy amongst the public, greater use of mechanisation, advances in printing technology and the organisation of the “book business” with the rise of the publishing houses. A great challenge for publishers was to satisfy a diverse market for books. The wealthy would still adorn their libraries with leather-bound volumes. The emerging middle class could afford decent and well-illustrated books, and those with learning, but little wealth, also demanded access to books. Publishers responded by producing different editions of the same book. A top-of-the-range edition produced in a form suitable for binding in leather. The same edition would also be issued with a cloth binding – the “publisher’s cloth” – and other, cheaper editions would appear – for example with plain in place of colour plates, smaller formats or less elaborate bindings.

Advances in printing technology also meant that publishers could produce elaborately decorated covers for their books. Many produced towards the end of the 19th century can be considered works of art in their own right and may be collected irrespective of the contents. Publishers also created series of books, often with the word “library” in the title, to encourage the public to collect them all.

However, it is easy to forget that, in earlier times, there were no great publishing houses, no mass production of books, and that booksellers were few and far between. Printers and publishers were often one and the same, and the title pages of some books even named the bookseller from whom a particular work could be purchased, and the location of his premises.

One of the great drivers for social change was the railway system. A new travelling public demanded something to read on their journey – inexpensive and easy to carry. In the 1850s, W.H.Smith opened their first Railway Bookstalls, and publishers such as George Routledge produced a series of distinctive books for the travelling public. They were small, bound between thin strawboard cases covered in a glazed yellow paper that was block printed, often with very gaudy colours. Coleman’s British Butterflies was one of the earlier non-fiction works published in this series, first appearing in 1860.

This “Yellowback” format spread to other inexpensive publications, including many entomological ones. Unfortunately, by around 1870 the production quality began to deteriorate with flimsy bindings, plates worn from previous cloth editions producing pale, uneven images on the paper, and poor quality paper used for printing. Most old Yellowbacks have not survived well, and spines in particular have deteriorated or dropped off completely.

Developments in the 20th century and beyond are mainly of a technical nature, and beyond the scope of this book. It is worth noting the emergence of the “dust jacket” and “dust wrapper” towards the very end of the 19th century. Although the first recorded use of a dust jacket was in 1832, they did not come into widespread use until the 20th century.

A wrapper is the term for paper covers originally placed on pamphlets but later used when publishing a book without boards. They might be plain, marbled or printed-paper often used as a temporary covering for books in the century before the introduction of ‘publisher’s cloth’.

The expressions dust jacket and dust wrapper are synonymous although the latter invites confusion with ‘wrappers’. Designed to protect the book before reading, the jacket was detachable and disposable. Not until beginning of 20th century did it become a critical part of the design and marketing of a book. The jacket soon changed the style of the book. Increasingly books were produced with dull, cloth bindings, which were then covered in an attractive, printed jacket. This was a cheaper and easier way of covering a book and no doubt a great advantage to their marketing.

These paper jackets, as intended, bore the brunt of the wear and tear but most are eventually discarded as they become increasingly dishevelled. Collectors now seek out books with intact or preferably pristine jackets and the value of some, for example Wayside & Woodland and New Naturalist series, seems to decline if even the price has been clipped from the corner of the jacket.

Collectors should always check that the jacket and the book really do match. It is not unknown for a grubby first edition to be clothed in a near perfect jacket but from a later edition. Beware also of laser colour printed copies, which do not enhance the value of a book, but are easily detected by the unnaturally white reverse side. Modern books continue to be produced with dust jackets, but many have discarded this feature as robust, coated covers become increasingly common.

The development of good, synthetic adhesives has helped the return of the paperback butterfly book and an enormous range of binding materials including synthetic leathers has increased the interest of modern books, but the continued use of mechanised case binding has produced a generation of books that are structurally weak. The case of some larger or heavier books is often secured only with a thin strip of mull and the endpaper. Many modern entomological books, heavily used by their owners, soon show signs of wear with the text block` pulling away from the spine and covers.

In the 21st century, the development of the digital book and the demise of the printed medium are heralded as “progress”. If we are unnerved by this prospect, it is still easy to visit a new bookshop in any high street of any town and feel at home amongst this familiar medium. Sadly, the number of second-hand bookshops has diminished rapidly over the last decade due to a number of factors including exorbitant rents rises and crippling overheads. In addition, internet competition has revolutionised the second-hand and antiquarian book trade with multiple copies of common titles readily available at the click of a mouse. Rare, specialist or unusual items may be hard to find but are likely to remain highly sought after by collectors.

Paper and book sizes

Early books used thick, hand-made paper. It was difficult to make sheets that were exactly the same size, and they were rarely trimmed so each page was slightly different in size, with an irregular edge. As well as making page-turning difficult, the format attracted dust that settled in-between the pages. Later books had the paper folded several times and mechanically produced paper was invariably folded so the edges needed to be trimmed in order for the pages to be revealed. Old bound books can still be found where the trimming process has not worked, and the pages are still folded together, often at the top of the page. These books are described as unopened. The term uncut or untrimmed is reserved for those books where the paper has uneven edges.

Trimming books produced a flat surface on the top that gave some protection from dust. Better protection was achieved by burnishing the top edge with gold leaf producing a hard, impervious surface. Such books are described as top edge gilt (teg). Gilding books was aesthetically pleasing and many books were produced with top, bottom and fore-edge gilded. These are described as all edges gilt (aeg). Ever inventive, binders could replace the gilding with marbling, or even a painting executed on the fanned out fore-edge of a book, which was only visible when the book was opened.

Bookseller catalogues often refer to the “format” of a book, which can be confusing for the collector. Terms such as folio, quarto, octavo or 32mo may be used, and these are a rough approximation of the size of the book. Strictly speaking, the format is determined by the size of the sheet of paper originally used by the printer (older papers sizes included Demy, Crown, Royal and Elephant), and the number of times this sheet was folded to make a section of a book. For example, a book described as Royal Octavo (Royal 8vo) would be made from sheets of Royal paper folded 3 times. The final book would measure approximately 10” by 6”. The actual size would depend upon how much was trimmed from the pages during binding, and size of the boards use for the covers.

More familiar terms such as quarto and more recently metric measurements (A5, A4 etc.) are used for modern books.

One final technicality is important in very old books – the signatures and collation. Collectors may notice stray letters or numbers at the bottom of pages, particularly at the end of a section. These are called the signature and were added to help the binder put the pages together in the correct order. The overall sequence of the book is known as the collation and describes the number of pages and their order if the book. An example might look like: [A]2 B-D6, E4. A detailed explanation is beyond the scope of this book, but collations are important in examining different versions of books, and checking whether or not a particular copy has missing pages – important where the printers were careless in paginating their books.

A final comment on paper relates to its quality. The paper manufacturing process takes many forms and typically involves the extraction of cellulose fibres from natural or recycled materials, bleaching, washing and pressing into moulds. Each of these stages can be undertaken with varying degrees of care. Poor quality paper in older books is usually thin and fragile, possibly caused by insufficient washing at the end of the process. Such paper is usually intolerant of light, and disintegrates, particularly at the edges of a book.

Poor paper manufacture, often exacerbated by storing books in damp or poorly ventilated conditions, can lead to chemical reactions in the paper resulting in yellowy-brown spots on the page. This condition, known as foxing, can vary from the odd spot to massive discolouration. On coloured plates, it can be particularly problematic, and excessive foxing will adversely affect the value of a book

Publication Dates and Age of Books

For many reasons great importance is attached to the “date” and age of a book. This can be a highly complex topic but the majority of books featured here have a relatively simple publication history and, even if the date is not stated, their age may be narrowed down to within a year or two. Amongst collectors first editions often command a higher value although later editions may be much improved by revision and extension.

The age of a book will be indicated by the publication date which is usually found at the foot of the title page or, in the case of modern books, on the reverse side or preliminaries along with other publication details. However, it must be remembered that production of a book may have continued for many years, thereby remaining “in print”, and so will be younger than its stated date. Reprints may be later, but not dated differently, and the content and appearance identical or with minor corrections which are hard to spot. A book running to a new edition invariably gives a new date stating the number of editions attained.

The use of Roman numerals for dating books was a common, but not exclusive, practice until the 19th century after which they were gradually superceded by the familiar Arabic numbers in use today. The former may still appear on modern publications to convey a tone of exclusivity or academic content. Certain types of books were less frequently dated. Victorian children’s books and the cheaper small books of the period tended to be undated. Likewise, dates were omitted from many books published during the first thirty years or so of the 20th century. Where no date appears a combination of clues will enable dating to be deduced with reasonable accuracy. Apart from the content of a book a careful scrutiny should be given to paper manufacture, watermarks, binding style and decoration, typeface, design and illustrations. In older books with plate illustrations the date will often be found below the image by the title with the names of the artist and engraver which were placed on the left and right hand sides respectively.

Roman numerals may also be found wherever numbering is needed such as volumes in a set, pages, chapters and plates. They are based on seven symbols with the following values:-

I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500, M = 1000.

A combination of these symbols is used to construct the numbers in between the basic values subject to certain rules to avoid repetition and unecessarily long combinations. Where the required number is higher than a single symbol another may be added after, for example, II = 2, III = 3 or VI = 6. A smaller, or subtracting, symbol may be placed before a higher value to denote a lower number, for example IV = 4, IX = 9, or XL = 40. Lower case may also be used, but not mixed, i.e, i, v, x, l, c, d and m

A few useful examples:-.

  • I = 1, II = 2, III = 3, IV = 4, V = 5, VI = 6, VII = 7, VIII = 8, IX = 9, X = 10, XI = 11
  • XX = 20, XXX = 30, X L = 40, L = 5O, LX = 60, LXX =70, LXXX = 80, XC = 90
  • XCIX = 99, C = 100, CI = 101, CC = 200, CD = 400, D = 500, DC = 600
  • M = 1000, MCM = 1900, MM = 2000, MMVIII = 2008

Illustrating books

In the early days, illustrations were produced by an artist drawing and colouring a device at the beginning of a page, a border or more rarely as a whole illustration. Such techniques of illumination were impractical for even small-scale book production – although examples of butterfly books produced in a similar manner can be traced to the end of the 19th century.

The advent of the printed page required a technique for reproducing an image on that page. Early illustrations relied on one of three basic techniques:

  • Relief printing where ink was applied to a surface of a material that was then pressed onto a sheet of paper producing an image the same shape as the material. Wood cuts are an example of this technique.
  • Intaglio printing where ink was applied to grooves scratched or cut in a material, which was then transferred to a sheet of paper – the principle of the engraving.
  • Planographic printing, where an image was transferred from a flat surface to the paper. Lithography and photographic printing are examples of this technique.

Woodcuts have been known since Egyptian times and were made from carving a relief of an image at right angles to the grain. They were cheap and easy to use, although the wood wore down very quickly during the printing process and later impressions were often indistinct. Woodcuts can usually be recognised by their rather crude design. Wood engraving advanced this technique, typically carving along the grain of woods such as Boxwood. The images they produced were more sophisticated that those of woodcuts, and are usually recognisable by the clean but simple image they produced. Wood engravings were in use until the end of the 19th century.

Engraving on metal is a complex process but enables far greater detail and sophistication to be introduced into the illustration. In essence, a drawing is carved into a metal sheet with a sharp tool, with light and shade depicted by drawing lines closer together, or by cross-hatching. For printing, the grooves are filled with ink and pressed against damp paper, producing an outline image of the drawing. Printing an engraved image requires some pressure and results in a characteristic indentation on the page, enabling engraved plates to be readily differentiated from later lithographs.

Copper plates were originally used for engraving, but being a soft metal wore out after a few hundred impressions. In early books, plates often had to be re-engraved if later editions were required and spotting minor differences in the engravings has attraction for some book collectors. From the late 1820s steel was introduced – it was more difficult to work but much harder than copper, being capable of producing several thousand impressions. Spotting the difference between copper and steel engraved plates is not always easy, but in general terms the lines and cross-hatchings are finer and closer together on steel plates. From the late 1850s, plates were made of copper coated with steel offering ease of engraving with durability. Plates often bore the name of the artist, conventionally being on the lower left-hand side of the plate and the engraver on the right.

Lithography was first developed in Munich in 1798, and is based on the simple premise that grease and water repel each other. An image is drawn on a flat surface using a greasy material. The surface is dampened, a greasy ink or paint applied with a roller, and paper is pressed to the surface, transferring the image. Originally, large blocks of limestone were used to create the lithograph, but these were unwieldy for the mass production of books, and by 1830 zinc plates were widely used, these being replaced by aluminium in the 1890s. Lithographs produce fine, clean images and because there is no undue pressure the paper remains flat after the impression is taken.

Introducing colour

Techniques of colour printing were not developed until the beginning of the 19th century, and required the use of specially treated paper; before then, the only way of illustrating in colour was to use paints, usually watercolours, and to apply them by hand. Over the lifetime of the hand colouring of butterfly books, from the early 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century, one can find illustrations ranging from fine works of art to the most appalling daubing, with little more than thin watercolour carelessly washed over an image.

Most of the fine works were coloured by the author or a known artist working with the author. As print-runs increased, this became impractical and colourists were employed to apply the colour. Typically, the author or artist would produce a number of “master” copies of the illustrations, which were then copied. In late Victorian times, this activity gave work to many “production line” copy artists, often women and children. Unfortunately, the quality of these copies varied considerably, and some dreadful work can be found. For the book collector, a good find is a copy of a book with the master colourist’s work on the illustrations, rather than standard or poor colouring.

Illustrating books by hand was a novel activity in the eighteenth century, and much had to be learned, particularly the paints and pigments that could be used. Watercolour or gouache body-colour was the only satisfactory medium whereby plain images of engravings could be coloured and then bound with the letterpress to form an illustrated book. Some artists were concerned that their readers should know exactly how they arrived at their colours and, for example, Moses Harris in some of his later editions produced “colour wheels” to show how he obtained the various colours.

Not all hand-coloured illustrations have stood the test of time. The aging of the colouring can vary considerably from one copy of a book to another. Some paintings will still be as bright and vibrant as the day they were executed whereas in other less attractive versions the colouring will now appear dull and lifeless.

This may be attributed the conditions, particularly humidity and temperature, under which the book has been kept over the years but may also reflect the ability of the colourist. The quality and suitability of the pigments in the paints may cause loss of intensity, fading or other changes to the colouration. The paper on which the plates are impressed will vary in quality and be affected by adverse conditions resulting in discolouration, browning or foxing.

In some books, and Lewin’s Papilios of Great Britain is a good example, the colouring of the figures will be found to have turned a dull grey, often on the white or blue butterflies, due to the reaction of a lead pigment in the watercolour paint. Free-hand watercolours were hardly ever employed. An engraving or lithograph was produced as a guide for the artist to colour. For fine works, very little pressure was used in the printing process, so the lines were very fine and unobtrusive. In mass-produced works for hand colouring, print impressions tended to be darker – because it actually made colouring easier – a skilful engraving or lithograph often meant that fewer colours were needed to give a passable image.

The advent of mechanical colour printing and photography during the second half of the 19th century rapidly brought an end to the era of grand hand-coloured plate books, and by the dawn of the 20th century they has all but disappeared.

Colour printing passed beyond the experimental stage and into commercial production in the 1830s. The process was based on lithography but extended so that a different stone was used for each color, and each separate color was laid on top of the previous one. Thus, a single sheet was printed on several times before the print was finished. A number of stones were required, each positioned identically to the one before. Any error meant that colours were out of register – creating a ghosting effect. As the century progressed chromolithography became more intricate, with as many as fifteen stones were employed, and some wonderful and highly artistic results obtained. The process became easier as zinc and aluminum were used in place of stone.

The Victorians loved this method of printing because of its rich colouring and many books were bound with chromolithographic prints of extraordinarily high quality. Whilst it is generally easy to spot a chromolithograph, matters are complicated in some books where printed images are “touched up” by hand. Particular examples include the addition of silver spots to images of fritillary butterflies.

In the mid-1800s, it became possible to transfer a photographic image to a lithograph plate and effectively produce photographic plates. Perhaps the first butterfly book to employ this technique was Lucas’s The Book of British butterflies, published in 1893. Early images were printed on normal paper, and it was not until the 20th century that photographic illustrations on glossy paper became the norm. Technology advanced rapidly with the development of two, three and four colour-printing processes and in the 21st century to the direct capture of digital images onto paper.


In the 21st century, the business model for producing books is simple. The publisher takes a view on whether or not a book will be profitable. If they are right, everybody is happy. If they are wrong, remaining stocks of the book are either destroyed, or sold off in bulk (“remaindered”) to a third party. Smaller publishers, such as County Trusts, may have a different model where breaking even on costs may be aspirational.

The problems faced by modern day authors who wish to see their works in print have not really changed over the ages, and seeking funds to print and illustrate books has exercised the minds of many over the years.

Illustrating books by hand colouring proved to be a major expense, and early authors such as Eleazar Albin and Moses Harris sought sponsorship for their works. Typically, each plate was sponsored by a different person and the order in which plates appeared in the book seemed to bear some relationship to the rank of the sponsor. In one copy of Albin’s A natural History of English Insects plate 1 bears the dedication “To Her Royl Highness the Princess of Wales, this plate is humbly dedicated by Eleazar Albin …” whereas plate 100 is, with equally humble dedication, ascribed to “… Arthur Weaver of the Middle temple Esq….“. The name of the sponsor was engraved on the plate, and a list of sponsors was printed in the book. It is interesting to see the change in sponsorship as new editions of books were produced and plates had to be re-engraved. Perhaps this was through death, impoverishment or loss of interest.

At a less elevated level, funding was sought through “subscribers” – patrons who would purchase a copy of a book in advance. Expense was often mitigated by publishing works in parts at regular intervals. Many great works in the 18th and 19th century were originally published in parts and some subsequently issued again by the publisher as a combined edition. Funding through subscription continues to the present day for some types of book.

Publishers also sought to defray their costs by the inclusion of advertising material. Cheaper works in the 19th century contained advertisements, which ranged from lists of other titles from the publisher to the ubiquitous promotions of Pear’s Soap, Fry’s Cocoa, Beecham’s Pills and many miraculous medicinal remedies. Identical versions of a particular book often contained different advertisements so it is likely that publishers did not bind all copies of a book at the same time but rebound with new advertisements as the need arose.

Taking care of books

A book collection can represent a considerable investment over time, so it makes sense to know the basics about taking care of books. Detailed instructions on care, repair and restoration are beyond the scope of this book, and readers are referred to Bookbinding & the Care of Books by Douglas Cockrell. First published over a hundred years ago it has run to numerous editions, revisions and reprints. Pitman Publishing issued a fifth edition in 1953 which was revised in 1973 but the publication is now in the hands of the Kessinger Press of New York.

Books are surprisingly robust, and it is not uncommon to find volumes well in excess of 100 years old that are in excellent condition. Books do have several weak points, and recognising these can ensure that no damage is caused by careless handling.

Pulling the top of the spine is the usual way of removing a book from a shelf. If books are too tightly packed, pulling risks tearing or distorting the spine, particularly in older, cloth-bound books. In many older books, a headband was sewn into the top of the spine to add extra strength.

Be gentle! The hinge of the book – between the boards and text block – weakens over time. Cloth hinges wear in books that have been used a lot, and leather hinges can crack or break if they are too dry, or the book is opened too vigorously. The glue holding the book together may be weak, and the book may crack if attempts are made to open the pages too far. Finally, the paper itself may be fragile and either tear easily or simply disintegrate.

Books should be stored upright, and not tightly packed. Avoid damp situations, for example storage against a cold, outside wall which can attract condensation. Avoid direct sunlight which can seriously fade the exposed surface of the book. Excessive warmth, such as that from central heating systems, can also dry out leather, and excessive dust can damage paper and binding.

Simple maintenance should include removing dust from the top edge of the book by blowing, rather than wiping. Treat leather books with a proprietary leather dressing every two or three years to keep the leather supple. Most good dressings contain lanolin and beeswax. Marney’s Dressing is often used in conservation work and is inexpensive and easy to use.

Finally, avoid mutilating books! Erasing or clipping the names of previous owners, tearing out old bookplates, clipping or removing prices and discarding dust jackets all reduce the interest and monetary value of books.

Aurelian Books ~ David Dunbar
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