14 Apr 2021
August 10, 2013 - Filed under: History of Antiques — Richard

With so many books in existence, it is hard to imagine how people ever managed without bookcases. However, books were originally handwritten and therefore scarce. Books were generally owned by wealthy people who would carry their books with them on journeys, typically in coffers which were covered in jewels and gold-gilded. During the 15th Century, printing methods improved, which meant that ownership of books became more common, creating a requirement for storage.

Books were originally stored in cupboards, laid flat. The first books had a band of parchment or leather, which was used to close a book and bore the title at the front. Once it became possible to print the book title on the spine of the book, they were stored standing up so that the title could be clearly seen. As more books were stored, the doors from cupboards were removed. The design for today’s modern bookcase was based on this trend from the Middle Ages.

What were early bookcases made of?

The first bookcases were made of oak, which is still considered a practical choice for a library. Craftsmen created a basic design which fulfilled the practical requirement of storing books, which were becoming increasingly plentiful. However, the design started to change during the 18th Century, when Sheraton and Chippendale started to embellish bookcases, adding a touch of elegance and charm to the original design.

French craftsmen also decided to design bookcases that were a little more elaborate, constructed from rosewood and mahogany and decorated with marquetry. The oldest bookcases now owned in England are believed to be kept at Oxford University in the Bodleian Library, and are thought to date back to the late 16th Century. The most successful designs of bookcase were both practical and attractive, produced by designers in England, Italy and France.

Types of bookcases

It is possible to have bookshelves, which are an open set of shelves often confused with bookcases. Although bookcases may be open fronted, as seen in libraries, a bookcase would usually have doors on them to protect the books from dust and other pollutants. The doors of a bookcase are typically made of glass, which allows you to see the books, although extremely valuable books may be protected by a bookcase with wooden doors and kept locked. Today, bookcases are often made using cheaper types of wood, but antique bookcases are often constructed using mahogany, rosewood or walnut, demonstrating elaborate designs with glass fronts. It is even possible to locate bookcases made of steel in today’s market.

Do we still need bookcases?

Although devices like the Kindle are becoming increasingly popular, books are still in huge demand and bookcases are an essential piece of furniture for most homes. There are many types of bookcase with various designs made of different types of wood. Antique bookcases continue to be in strong demand, not only to keep books in pristine condition but to provide an attractive and useful item of furniture.

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