Beautiful boxes

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Drawing of Clam Shell box.

When you stop to think about it, boxes make for very special enclosures. I’m sitting here, typing this blog and thinking of the many ways boxes are utilized on a daily basis. For example, there are mail boxes, tool boxes, boxes made for chocolates, shipping boxes, bread boxes, hat boxes, and shoe boxes. The list is long and impressive.

In my estimation, however, the finest box (in the bookbinding trade) is the Clam Shell box. There are variations on this enclosure, and some are the Slip case and the Four Flap with a case. All three styles were taught in a class I assisted in teaching last month at the John C. Campbell Folk School located in Brasstown, North Carolina. The class was aptly named “Protective Enclosures for Books.” These enclosures are not only the librarian’s best friend, they have also been made to please the artistic eye as well.

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Measuring the height, width, and thickness of a book.

For the novice, making a clam shell box can be quite an overwhelming experience. Its success is marked by how precisely the measuring and cutting of the materials has been carried out. The thickness of the material used for covering the case and the inside linings, such as decorative paper, all need to be taken into account to arrive at an accurate measurement for cutting the trays and side walls of the box.

But even before that, the book itself must be carefully measured by its height, width, and thickness; the thickness being perhaps more tricky because, often times, the spine side can be thicker than the fore-edge.

[Marking] the advent of the mass-produced book…

At NEHGS, we have many books that, sadly, because of the era in which they were “born,” are now in poor condition. I say that because, as many of you may know, the advent of the mass-produced book led to the introduction of pulp in the mix, more specifically lignin – a very bad (highly acidic) ingredient indeed, as many of the pages of the genealogies in our library will attest.

Around 1850, paper especially took a nose dive as the content went from rags such as cottons and linens to wood pulp. The modern-day breakdown/deterioration of paper also has to do with the sizing (alum rosin) added into the slurry of the vat of pulp. The brittle paper needs to be enclosed in an acid-free, cool, and dry environment, i.e. with relative humidity and temperature complementing one another (that is, relative humidity at 50% and a temperature of 70 degrees F).

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Images from the class “Protective Enclosures for Books.” Clockwise from upper left: student sample of a Clam Shell box and a slipcase resting in the inside front of box; foreflap with a cover (decorative paper on inside front cover); closeup of a slipcase; simple box enclosure made out of 20 pt. Bristol Board.

Below are some of the beautiful decorative boxes made during our week of learning how to build protective enclosures, as well as some more utilitarian boxes that are frequently used at the library but with no less effectiveness in preserving a book.



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About Deborah Rossi

Deborah Rossi is the Conservation Technician at NEHGS. She is responsible for the conservation and repair of the Society's book and manuscript collections. Deborah received her training at the North Bennet Street School in Boston.

9 thoughts on “Beautiful boxes

  1. How very interesting. I would not have realized that they were made 4 this reason. I don’t know what I thought it was for.Now I know. I have learned something new today. Thank u.

  2. Lovely article and its great to know you have opportunities to share your expertise with other groups too. I remember meeting you when I donated some bibles and was so pleased with your skills and genuine interest in those “old books”.

  3. I enjoyed this post on boxes. It would be interesting to see more details and pictures of your boxes. It took me a while to figure out that foreflap is really Four Flap.

  4. Isn’t John Campbell a marvelous place? I have lived just down the road from them for the last 20 years, and just a few weeks ago moved to TN. Glad you enjoyed your time/class there.

  5. Deborah!

    While book repair, making boxes, etc., is not rocket science, it helps to take classes with the pros, so you know just what (often quite simple) material you need to create a preserved book and a book/manuscript preservation environment. Would that I had been steered that way decades & decades ago when I was futzing around with an uncle’s deteriorating copies of Tom Swift books from the 1920s!

    As for now, at least I get a 100 sheet package every year from Brodart to protect dust jackets. (No, none of those TS jackets survived, alas.)

    As a Follow-Up, could you post diagrams and descriptions for the 20 Pt Bristol Board box for general member education? That material is readily available, and working on it is a Good Start and Easy Practice.

    Also, a Special Plea regarding the volumes of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts sitting upright on the Society’s shelves. The usually thicker volumes from the late 1920s through say early 1970s are made with high quality paper as the text block but joined to the casing by JUST the pastedown sheet. Even just standing there untouched, the weight of the text block pulls on the pastedown paper as the glue continues to dry. So while at the moment not highly used, any use weakens the book’s structural integrity.

    As more people come to find the value of the 2 Sam Morison volumes on the Suffolk (MA) County Court, for instance, usage will rise and cracked hinges will result. Even just a little extra binder’s glue will help before a formal re-binding.

    If this issue with these books has already been addressed in the 8 years since I was at the Society, THANKS!

  6. I have been using clam-shell boxes and four-flaps for artwork and other personal archival material for a long time, but buy them commercially. I am fascinated by made boxes, and now I am wondering why it never occurred to me to make my own clam-shells! I may have to rearrange my workspace upstairs to accommodate this! Betting there are some good blogs and videos online to help learn. I probably already have most of the tools. Thanks for a beautiful introduction to something I had previously regarded as strictly utilitarian!

  7. I’m passing this link on to a friend! I had just showed him pics of my boxes from your wonderful class and what a treat to see them with our other class members’ boxes. It was a delightful time at JC Campbell and I’ll now be better able to assist our local genealogy society library with its conservation efforts. Thank you Deborah!

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