Printed easter eggs: fore-edge paintings hidden in books

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Before it became standard practice to place books on shelves with their spines outward, it was common to have the title written onto the edge.

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Why would you ever put the spine inwards?

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But lots of things still had yet to evolve about book shelving before it would be recognizably “modern.” Books were usually shelved horizontally in piles, for example, and even when space considerations forced people to start shelving them vertically, the chains attached to their covers dictated that they be placed with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing outward. Based on an informal sampling of my friends and acquaintances, this is the single most disturbing part of Petroski’s book. People react strongly to the idea of shelving books spine-inward; comments like “that’s just wrong” and “I don’t like to think about it” kept cropping up when I mentioned the practice. But in addition to the chains, which would have scraped the covers of the neighboring books if the spines had been faced out, there are other reasons that a fore-edge first shelving technique makes sense. There was no identifying information on the spines of books, for example, until well into the seventeenth century. For a long time, they were completely unadorned, in stark contrast to the elaborate front and back covers. In addition, Petroski brings up the fascinating point that, even when they began to be decorated,

The exoskeletal spine, which holds up the innards of the book structurally…was still the machinery of a book…and so it continued to be the part that was hidden as much as possible, pushed into the dark recesses of bookshelves, out of sight. Shelving books with their spines inward must have seemed as natural and appropriate a thing to do as to put the winding machinery of a clock toward the wall or behind a door, or both.

This is so interesting to me. I would, of course, never think of positioning a computer or desk lamp so that its electrical cords were on conspicuous display, and medieval and Renaissance folks apparently felt the same way about book spines.


But they could have attached the chains to the base of the spine. And the only reason there wasn’t any identifying information on the spines was because they were shelved ass-backwards.

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At one time a common practice was to place books spine down. That’s easier on the binding. putting books spine out didn’t become common until, with the printing press, books became cheap enough that they were no longer chained to the shelf.


Interesting idea, do you have a source for that?

Worth a read if your interested in the topic.

Thanks. Petroski sounds like an interesting man; from my point of view as an engineer and software developer his work in engineering failure analysis sounds more interesting though.

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