Today, most people who own a collection of books keep them in a bookcase, but this has not always been the case. Before the invention of the printing press, books were individually hand written by monks, which was a painstakingly slow process as each beautifully bound book took a very long time to complete. Only clergy, religious houses, or the very wealthy could afford books and these were normally stored flat in boxes one on top of the other, in cupboards, or on tables. Open bookcases were some time coming.
By the 18th century, it was possible to produce books much more quickly, more cheaply, and in bulk. As the cost of purchasing a book became increasingly more affordable, the middle classes together with the clergy and aristocracy were able to purchase books too. Consequently, a better method of storing books became necessary - the first bookcases.
These early open bookcases were made completely from oak and had several horizontal shelves that could be fixed or adjustable; many people still believe that oak is the best wood for making bookcases. The earliest example of a flat wall bookcase can be found in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and was installed there in the late 16th century. Rows of these long bookcases are not very attractive so additions like pilasters and carved cornices were included, and English cabinetmakers of the mid to late 18th century made some exceptionally fine examples.
Some of England’s finest cabinetmakers designed or made open bookcases. Among them, Chippendale and Sheraton, and their fine workmanship produce quality open bookcases that conveyed elegance and charm. Quality open bookcases from this period are still very desirable and sought after today. Some say that the satinwood bookcases made by Sheraton have an elegance and charm that has rarely, if ever, been equaled. Some cabinetmakers inlaid their bookcases with marquetry and affixed chased and gilt bronze trimmings. They also began to experiment with various types of wood, and among those used was mahogany, rosewood and satinwood but more exotic woods were occasionally used.
Manufacturers of bookcases soon realised that many homes do not have sufficient space to house a bookcase with doors, so they began manufacturing bookcases of a similar size but without doors and these open bookcases, as they were called, became increasingly popular. A reputable antique dealer who has the experience and knowledge of dealing with genuine antique open bookcases will be able to give reliable advice and show you one or more examples they have in stock.
Open bookcases are versatile and there are many ways that they can be placed within a room. They can be sited either flat against a wall, or with several lined around the walls of a room leaving a large space in the middle for access. They can also be positioned back to back with an aisle between them so that a person can access the books from each side. Alternatively, they can be positioned to divide a room, but they must be securely fixed to a wall for stability and safety.