Family Bibles, like everything else, suffer the passage of time. Many family heirloom Bibles and books are in extremely poor condition. The biggest threats to a Bible are heat, humidity and light. There are usually many other forensic signs of usage such as: food and debris in the gutters; ragged ear-marked pages from heavy use; hair braids to corsages stuffed between pages; pencil and pen notes in the margins; torn and bumped covers; papers and photographs spreading the pages; and the general rubs and abrasions. Some of these venerable giants have simply been worn-out by loving prolonged use.
Generally, family Bibles were bound with calfskin leather. Due to radical changes in book production techniques, earlier Bibles tend to have the longer-lasting leather, while later versions bound in more caustic and acidic leather can become powdery and tattered. Additionally, there are examples in the late Victorian era of cloth bindings with cheaper paper for Bibles purchased as a poor families’ option.
The typical family Bible published between 1840 and 1900 was 12 x10 by 4 inches. In the early period, the family Bible covers were flat with little, if any, embossment. Family Bibles produced from 1870 are often deeply embossed and have panels stamped in gold.
Papers in earlier Bibles are made of cotton, linen or a mix of the two. These type fibers are very long lived. For example, a pure linen paper can last over 500 years. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, paper used for pages was mass-produced from pulps using tree fibers and harsh chemicals. That is why the quality of materials tends to preserve older paper in better condition and make later Bibles’ paper more brittle.
Nineteenth century Bibles often use several different types of papers; such as one kind for illustrations and another for text. For example, the illustrations, the title page and interleafing tissue, text paper, family record pages, and the back, heavy paper lined board where photographs were inserted may all be different sorts of papers. Mid-1800’s Bibles tend to be single columned content where the later Victorian volumes are double columned. Turn of the century Bibles often have glossaries, maps and illustrated sections in the front of the book.
Linen thread and hide glue were used to bind the Bibles. Hide glue is acidic and only good for about a hundred years before it becomes brittle. It is common to see the spine of an older Bible parting as the glue shrinks and separates from the paper. A leather cover, paper and glue materials bound together properly can last for centuries; however, if one element fails, the whole Bible will fall apart under the shear weight of itself.
With the ingredients of leather, cotton, hide glue and linen in its composition, the Bible is an interconnected organic system. The great enemies, heat, humidity and light, do more to age and breakdown the substances in Bibles than most anything else. However, there are ways to preserve and protect your family Bible.
How can one save and prolong the life of a precious heirloom Bible?
Put a Bible in the basement, garage or attic
Set a Bible upright without lateral support
Leave a Bible opened for prolonged periods
Let sunlight or harsh lighting contact the Bible
Keep a Bible in either a humid or dry environment
Expose a Bible in an extreme temperatures
Keep a Bible at room temperature 68 to 72 degrees
Store a Bible flat, but kept so that its form is not canted
Maintain humidity as close to 50 percent as possible
Preserve the Bible in an archival box
Store the Bible in the center of the closet (not the floor in case of flood and not on top in case of fire).
Keep the Bible family records updated with a note inside the front cover with recognizable names
Nothing lasts forever, at least in a physical form. Family Bibles, after 100 years, almost always need the preservative services of a professional bookbinder. With the proper restoration and conservation, this heirloom can reasonably last another 100 years. Select a good conservator and your family will enjoy and treasure your family Bible for many more generations.