Recent Acquisitions: Museum Pays Homage to Women Bookbinders

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Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Tim James says he's more interested in the stories of people than equipment, but he nonetheless spent a decade pursuing the holy grail for bookbinders: The Smyth #3 Book Sewing Machine.

"The nice thing about collecting old cast iron is that people will practically pay you to take it away," and so Wilson only had to pay shipping for the American Bookbinders Museum's recent acquisition. Wilson also runs Taurus Bookbindery around the corner, but he is happy to leave the shop and offer tours of the museum which he founded. He also finances and curates the collection and exhibitions.

Wilson is now seeking parts to make the Smyth operational, but he won't be testing it out himself, for fear of injury. When it is eventually operable, the heavy rotating arms would inevitably hit his knees. "In the 1880s sewing was women's work, so why make one that a large person could operate?"

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Indeed, here comes the story Wilson hopes visitors will take away: Women were always in binderies, and the machine enabled them to dominate the workforce. Before the Smyth, women typically numbered a mere 20 percent of the bindery, and spent their days "forwarding" -- folding, collating, book and headband sewing, and tipping on of plates. They worked an excess of 10 hours a day, numbering hundreds in larger binderies, and producing as many books in total. They were hired off the street and considered less skilled than their counterparts, journeymen who spent a minimum of six years as apprentices perfecting their craft.

Artisans were at odds with industrialization. Bookbinders certainly sewed better books by hand, but they were too slow to keep up with demand. In the 1870s, David Smyth invented a machine that could replace at least 10 women.

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When the Smyth arrived, it was the journeymen who set them up, but their years of careful study were of no use. According to Wilson, by the end of the 19th century, women dominated the bindery workforce, outnumbering men four to one. They were better sewers, and far cheaper, with a few exceptions. "The woman that ran the machine would have been the highest paid woman in the bindery, and would have earned more money than some of the lesser skilled men," Wilson explained, and encourages visitors to complement a visit to the museum with a quick stop down the street, to the old headquarters of the Women's Bookbinder Union. A mural in the lobby depicts a woman sewing a book on none other than a Smyth #3.

The American Bookbinders Museum is located at 1962 Harrison Street, open Mondays and Thursdays, but visitors will find someone happy to let them inside most days. Appointments are welcome.

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