Sage House News: The Cornell University Press Blog

Origin and Survival of the Bastard Title

If you love to hold books as much as you love reading them, you might savor the first few moments of cracking a new binding and taking time to explore the front matter before arriving at the main content.

Whether you enjoy paging leisurely through those initial leaves or you breeze past them with indifference, at some point you may have stopped, as I have recently, to wonder about that extra, seemingly redundant title page, known simply as the half title. Why is it there? What purpose does it serve aside from beckoning us forward to page one?


Like any conscientious writer, I turned immediately to Wikipedia.


Like any conscientious writer, I turned immediately to Wikipedia, which defines the half title as “a page carrying nothing but the title of a book.” As far as a physical description goes, I admit that fits the bill. However, in my curiosity I kept digging, and I learned that this humble yet ubiquitous leaf also carries centuries’ worth of history and controversy.

 

Here are five interesting facts I uncovered:

  1. The first half title (yes, often there are two), which precedes the title page, is also called the “bastard title” or “fly-title.” The latter term derives from “fly-leaf,” the half of a book’s endpaper that is not pasted down to the inside cover and therefore left to fly free. The bastard title usually sits opposite the fly-leaf.
  2. For centuries, printing and binding remained two separate activities: customers purchased books from printers then brought them to bookbinders to be bound. The half title therefore served two functions: 1) before the book was bound, it identified the volume, and 2) it protected the book both before and during binding.
  3. From the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, many books were written and bound by hand, with covers made of carved and gilded wood or tooled leather and precious or semi-precious stones. Extremely valuable, they were often chained to shelves and reading tables for protection. Because of where the chain attached, they were stored with their fore-edges facing out (rather than their spines), so people wrote the books’ titles on their fore-edges—until someone came up with the idea to use the bastard title leaf for that purpose. The page would be severed, trimmed, and pasted into the front cover with the printed title protruding beyond the edge. Then it was folded so that the printed title covered the fore-edge. In the eighteenth century, when books began to be shelved with spines facing out, customers often asked their binders to paste the trimmed half title on the spine instead.
  4. Later in the eighteenth century, binders began to stamp books’ titles directly onto their spines, giving rise to a controversy: whether to keep or toss the bastard title page. Many agreed it still served the important function of protecting the text block from transport through binding, but some binders began to tear it out after binding was complete. Many an angry book lover rebelled, insisting that their binders retain what they believed to be an integral part of the book.
  5. Today, as publishers strive to keep books affordable, the bastard title seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. Check your shelves and tell us what you think. We’d love to know where you stand on the fate of this small piece of publishing history.

References

 

Jennifer Savran Kelly is her enjoying her new digs on the second floor as our newest Production Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @savranly