What Can We Learn From the Gutter of Jefferson's Bible?

Before you can even begin to think about how you might go about fixing something, you first have to know how it was put together


Editor's note: This post is the second in a series about the Jefferson Bible conservation project. Part one: "A Peek Inside the Conservation of the Jefferson Bible."

How does knowing how Jefferson's Bible was put together help us take it apart?

Book conservators always want to know how a book was bound. Before you can even think about how to fix something, you first have to know how it was made. An important method for identifying elements of the binding structure involves investigating deep in the center folds -- or gutter -- of the book, a dark place most readers never venture but one full of information to a trained eye.


The gutter of Jefferson's Bible posed many mysteries, including a series of paper "stubs" similar in color to the pages of Jefferson's Bible, but only about 1 cm in width. These folds of paper were used to compensate for the added thickness of the clippings Jefferson glued into the book. As any scrap-booker can tell you, too many extra pieces of paper in the middle of a book without added room at the spine means your book will never close properly!

Unfortunately, these stubs are now causing damage to the pages of Jefferson's Bible. The book no longer opens at the base of the pages close to the spine, but rather along this stub line. Because the volume's paper is brittle and inflexible, it cannot bend well and instead breaks when it comes into contact with the much stronger stubs. Ninety-eight percent of the volume's pages were creased, cracked, or torn in this vulnerable area.

Deeper investigation of the gutter of Jefferson's Bible was a challenging task because of the manual care and delicate precision required. Due to the fragility of the pages and the binding, the book could only be opened about 30 degrees, about as wide open as the letter "V." However, skill, and a little bit of luck, prevailed and a vital clue was revealed -- sewing thread! After mapping the sewing structure of the entire book, an unusual pattern emerged. This pattern meant that Jefferson did NOT cut pages out of a blank book to create the stubs as was previously thought. Instead, he assembled his pages while they were single pieces of paper folded in half, folios and sent them off to his book binder. The book binder then added the paper stubs before sewing it all together, and creating the beautiful leather binding.

Because the stubs are not original to Thomas Jefferson and instead came from the book binder, this opened the dialogue between conservators and curators about the possibility of modifying the binding structure for the benefit of the Jefferson material inside.

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Images: Smithsonian Institution.

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog and is republished here with permission.