A Short History of Gold Foil Stamping

Human beings have been decorating objects with gold leaf, or gold foil, for thousands of years, and for most of that time it was done entirely by hand. It took a skilled artisan to tool the leather cover of an illuminated manuscript, or beat gold foil to a thickness of a quarter-millionth of an inch and apply it to a cover. Such artisans might spend hours or days on a single volume. In medieval Europe, where literacy was almost non-existent, this wasn't really a problem; books were not in high demand. This changed only slowly, but as literacy rates rose, so did the demand for books. With the advent of Gutenberg's press, it became important to mechanize other aspects of the print industry, and eventually other methods were developed to decorate a book cover with gold foil.

"Prior to the development of hot-stamping foils, decorating book covers was accomplished by a method called 'free leaf stamping'. This procedure consisted of sizing the book covers, or other surfaces to be stamped, with a thin adhesive (size), which then had to be allowed to dry. Hand beaten, genuine gold leaf or leaves of bronze and other materials were then laid by hand onto the appropriate area. The book cover was then inserted into a hot-stamping press (also called a blocking press), which was usually heated by gas. The press contained a carefully engraved and mounted stamping die. Heated to approximately 225 to 250 degrees (F), the die was brought down in order to make proper contact. Pressure and dwell time had to be controlled by a skillful operator. The stamped image then had to be cleaned by the operator or another person assisting, using various wiping methods in order to arrive at a completed cover. These procedures were, of course, extremely time consuming; an arduous job if compared with present-day methods."*

Eventually, gold foil stamping was done using movable-type or hand-set lettering much like a Gutenberg press. As the name implies, bookbinders used separate fonts of brass type and assembled text by hand, one letter at a time. Instead of engraving a single large die, a single die was assembled from a number of small dies. Otherwise the process remained much the same: after the die had been assembled, it was loaded into a stamping press, usually gas-fired, which then pressed the gold foil into the book. This process saved the time and expense required to engrave a single die, but assembling the individual characters into a die was still somewhat labor intensive. Also there was still a significant investment in the brass dies; a bookbinder might have hundreds of fonts, with hundreds of thousands of individual characters. This process is still found occasionally today in boutique workshops where the additional labor costs can be easily justified.

With new methods and the increased volume of book production in the 19th and 20th centuries, gold foil stamping with genuine gold leaf became extremely costly, and new materials were needed. "Ernst Oeser, a master bookbinder in Berlin, Germany is credited as a pioneer in the development of hot-stamping foils . . . as early as 1880 . . . In the 1930s, an English foil manufacturer, George M. Whiley, introduced atomized gold on polyester film. Atomizing metallic coatings onto a prepared carrier film, in vacuum chambers, by means of a continuous vaporization process, resulted in the thinnest stamping foil...about sixteen times thinner than the thinnest beaten gold and therefore, relatively less expensive."

In the early 20th century another method of stamping was developed: linecasting. Typesetting machines like the Ludlow Typograph and Linotype cast an entire line of text out of lead using molds for each individual character. This reduced the labor cost involved with assembling dies one letter at a time. "Binders still had to handle individual slugs, that is, each line was set and cast separately in lead. Library binders and mechanics developed interesting gadgets, aimed at changing those slugs with speed. Cleverly designed devices which held the slugs in place, assured standardized stamping of book titles. Even today, utilizing computerized binding slips, we still speak of specific "slot" positions. Once these cast slugs were locked into the appropriate positions, an operator had to take a piece of cut hot-stamping gold foil and carefully position it over the area to be stamped." As before, the process still used a hand-operated press, and required a skilled operator. After the die has been used, the lead is then melted down for use in the linecasting machine again. Unfortunately the process is toxic, and linecasting has almost completely disappeared today as a result.

In the 1950s, vacuum-metalizing became extremely popular among all foil manufacturers. Forming such thin metal films of simulated gold and aluminum, resulted in quality stamping as fine definitions could be maintained. Ever since, improvements and technology in the manufacture of stamping foils have moved on with amazing speed. This new imitation gold leaf (gold foil) offers absolute color stability, is non-fading and non-tarnishing, and exhibits the brilliance and luster equaled only by genuine gold. "Even experts will find it extremely difficult to separate, visually, real gold from these contemporary stamping foils."

"The Bibliotheksbuchbinderei Dormagen in Bonn, Germany is credited to have pioneered and activated the development of the first electronically controlled embossing system, utilizing hard wired logic, for stamping individual titles . . . as early as 1968. Equipped with one of the first Siemens control units, this new, semi-automatic hot-stamping machine consisted of a type wheel which contained three different rows of type. Each row was selected manually. the covers to be printed were held by a clamp and moved manually toward an electric marker light, which enabled the operator to align the covers to match a sample rub as precisely as possible. By means of a keyboard, a title was first typed without imprinting . . . This slow process resulted in an output of about 20 titles per hour...however, this embossing machine, relatively expensive and slow, did not prove to be product and cost effective enough to become a success among library binders."

"Similar to the "Koemat," . . . the "Automark" embossing machine was introduced in the U.S. during the early sixties. The Automark, developed for the metal industry used for stamping metal tags, featured a wheel with 40 single type character, which were mechanically activated by means of a keyboard. Basically, it was a heated typewriter with automatic foil feed. Identical titles had to be repeated; a time consuming endeavor! Furthermore, it had no typographical justifation; that is, all characters occupied the same space."

"In 1975 . . . Jack Bendror, an innovative, American engineer, introduced his new RB-7 computerized, automatic hot-stamping system for imprinting individual book titles. Mr. Bendror, utilizing the type wheel concept of the "Koemat" and modern mechanical and computer technology, managed to double the productivity of the original German concept."

Enter Flesher. The story continues here.

*All quotes are from Werner Rebsamen's seminal volume Technically Speaking: Articles on Library Binding (©1992, Library Binding Institute). For those interested in the subject, no single source contains more valuable information on the history of bookbinding and modern bookbinding techniques.