It has become very fashionable these last few years to carry a notebook – ideally the black A5 notebook with a leather type cover and elastic closure. The brand Moleskine has become synonymous, bringing with it the kudos of heritage from Ernest Hemingway and Leonardo Da Vinci. The only problem is that the company was created in 1997 and even the name ‘Moleskine’ dates only as far back as 1980! – oh the success of branding.
The real story of the notebook and its history is far, far older and in many ways more interesting.
Bookbinding is older than paper – before paper writing was on clay, reed and then most successfully on vellum. Vellum is the general name for parchments made from calf skin – but many animal skins were dried and stretched to create a writing surface. Initially long documents would be wound into scrolls but somewhere around the fifth century parchments would be folded and stitched with cord before being held together with wooden boards covered in leather. The idea of using a clasp or straps to keep a book closed dates from this period. The books being made from vellum tended to absorb moisture and the pages swell thus distorting the binding. The metal clasp or leather straps were need to hold the shape of the book.
Paper as we know it today was first made in Lei-Yang, China by Ts'ai Lun, a Chinese court official. In all likelihood, Ts'ai mixed mulberry bark, hemp and rags with water, mashed it into pulp, pressed out the liquid, and hung the thin mat to dry in the sun. During the 8th century, Muslims (from the region that is now Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) learned the Chinese secret of papermaking when they captured a Chinese paper mill. Later, when the Muslims invaded Europe, they brought this secret with them. The first paper mill was built in Spain, and soon, paper was being made at mills all across Europe. Over the next 800 years, paper was used for printing important books, bibles, and legal documents. England began making large supplies of paper in the late 15th century and supplied the colonies with paper for many years
Perfect binding (the binding used for paperback books and that notebook you carry around with you) was invented in 1895, but was little used for bookbinding until 1931, when the German publisher, Albatross Books, introduced the first paperback books as an experiment. In England, Penguin Books adopted the format in 1935 with their popular line of classic books. In 1939, Pocket Books in America started producing popular titles in paperback versions, which quickly caught on and soon everyone was reading paperback books. Early perfect binding was done with cold glues, which became brittle over time. In the 1940s the DuPont Company developed a hot-melt adhesive binding process, which made for more durable and longer lasting books, and improved the binding process.
It was at a similar time that the spiral and wiro bind appeared - In 1932 Frank Amato of Italy worked in a manufacturing metal spiral-coil binding and binding books in France for the European market. Amato became the exclusive U.S. representative for metal spiral-coil binding, and founded Spiral Binding Company, Inc., America's first mechanical bindery, in New York City in 1932. The news industry and the education market were relatively lightly affected by the Great Depression, which enabled Spiral Binding to enjoy success during that period.
So back to your pocket note book – almost certainly made in China – but with their place in history of paper then why not? - using a binding that probably dates from around 1932 and a strap which predates everything else on the book back, to the fifth century. All you need now is a pen, but that is another story.