State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 73 Autumn 2004


Richard Overell
The ‘Red-Rot’ Problem

What a valuable servant is Gas, and how dreadfully we should cry out were it to be banished from our homes; and yet no one who loves his books should allow a single jet in his library, unless indeed he can afford a “sun light” which is the form in which it is used in some public libraries, where the whole of the fumes are carried at once into the open air.
Unfortunately, I can speak from experience of the dire effect of gas in a confined space. Some years ago when placing the shelves round a small room, which, by a euphemism, is called my library, I took the precaution of making two self-acting ventilators which communicated directly with the outer air just under the ceiling. For economy of space as well as of temper (for lamps of all kinds are sore trials), I had a gasalier of three lights over the table. The effect was to cause great heat in the upper regions, and in the course of a year or two the leather valance which hung from the window, as well as the fringe which dropped half-an-inch from each shelf to keep out the dust actually fell to the ground under its own weight; while the backs of the books on the top shelves were perished, and crumbled away when touched, being reduced to the consistency of Scotch snuff. This was of course due to the sulphur in the gas fumes, which attack Russia quickest, while calf and morocco suffer not quite so much. I remember having a book some years ago from the top shelf in the library of the London Institution, where gas is used, and the whole of the back fell off in my hands, although the volume in other respects seemed quite uninjured. Thousands more were in a similar plight.1
That Was William Blades in his 1880 work, The Enemies of Books, probably the best-known nineteenth-century summary of the conservation problems facing librarians and collectors. He was describing the phenomenon known then, and now, as ‘red-rot’ in leather. The causes were recognised as heat and the chemical reaction caused by the constituents of coal gas.
What brittle paper is to our century, ‘red-rot’ in leather was to the nineteenth. It had been seen as a problem as early as the 1840s when it was noticed that books recently bound in the Athenaeum Club Library in London were showing an unusual degree of deterioration within a few years of being placed on the shelves.
In 1842 the Society of Arts commissioned a report to be done by Michael Faraday, later to become famous as the pioneer of electricity. He was made the head of a committee formed to investigate this alarming situation. The committee quickly came up with the culprit, the gas that was used for lighting. One of their experiments involved leaving a bucket of water exposed for a fortnight to the air in the Athenaeum Club drawing room, and another bucket in a room not lit by gas. The water in the drawing room, though formerly pure, was found, after the fourteen days, to turn litmus red. It had in fact become dilute sulphuric acid. This was attributed to the sulphur released into the atmosphere by the burning gas lamps.
Faraday and his brother sought to overcome the problem by designing a new type of flue which drew the waste gases directly out of the building, perhaps the prototype of the ‘Sun-light’ lamps referred to by Blades.
However the problem persisted, and in 1860 we find it the subject of an exchange of letters between F. A. Guillaume, the London supplier of books to the Melbourne Public Library (as the State Library of Victoria was then called), and Redmond Barry. These are found among the Melbourne Public Library archives at the Victorian Public Record Office. What is perhaps most interesting is a letter from Spencer Hall, the Librarian of the Athenaeum Club, to Guillaume, giving his detailed assessment of the problem.
Redmond Barry had very definite views on most things from bushrangers to library bindings. He gave a talk on bindings to the Conference of Librarians held at the London Institution in 1877, in which he put forward his ideas on such matters as binding up pamphlets in volumes by size and subject and binding books on particular subjects in corresponding colours.2
The idea of colour coding had long been one of Barry's hobby horses, and it was on this point that he found himself in a debate with Guillaume. He had early in correspondence with the dealer insisted that all books supplied to the library be rebound and have the library seal stamped in gold on the upper board. In his letter to Guillaume of 16 February 1860 he wrote,
You will observe that the arrangement of the books in the reading room of the British Museum is such that works of different classes and in the different departments of literature are distinguished by the Color of the Binding.
It is desirable to adopt a similar plan with regard to our Books. You may give directions accordingly. The Librarian sends you a copy of the arrangement we have adopted with the colors proposed.3
The Librarian, Augustus Tulk, added a detailed list to Barry's letter giving twenty-seven different subject areas. The list was accompanied by twenty seven samples of coloured leather.
From reading the correspondence we can see that Guillaume was a typical book dealer,

State Library of Victoria Photographic Unit. Old accession registers of the State Library, kept for many years in a loft, showing red-rot, beside ledgers kept in the Australian Manuscripts Collection for many years, free of red-rot..

operating on a small profit margin and having to wait a long time for payment. He was unhappy with Barry's added conditions. The re-binding was already holding up despatch of the books; it meant an added outlay for himself and a longer period before ultimate payment. Besides, many of the books were purchased in serviceable bindings already. He replied to Barry in a letter dated 18 April 1860.4
The plan you think of adopting is almost impracticable and quite undesirable, as you will perceive in a more careful examination of the matter for the following reasons:-
1st- The colors can only be obtained by application of mineral dyes, which ought not to be used.
2nd- There ought to be only primary colors, and not shades: many of those specified would very soon fade to such an extent as to be almost indistinguishable. Even in the same skin of calf or morocco, the colors will vary in shade so much in different parts - according as it takes the dye -that the difference will be as imperceptible as it is between one third of the shades you select.
3rd- It would occupy 3 months to get a stock of calf of those colors properly dyed, and there would be continual delays among the various binders on account of their being out of a particular color.
4th- The binding would not last five years if colored calf is used, and the expense of re-binding in the Colony would be enormous (A binder in the Colony, with an eye to the future, could not have suggested a more costly scheme)
5th- Some colors are so delicate as to be unfit for anything except for presents; and when morocco lettering pieces are put on, and the back full gilt, the particular color of many of them would be, at the back, indistinguishable.
Guillaume had gone to some trouble to find out the latest information on the matter. He had spoken to Spencer Hall of the Athenaeum and to Mr. Watts of the British Museum, and was diligent in passing on their opinions to Redmond Barry. He continues:-
I enclose a letter from Mr. Hall, the Librarian of the Athenaeum Library - which will be a most satisfactory proof as to my statement that colored calf ought not to be used. If I look over the books I have sent ever since I was informed gas is used, you will find that I have sent all the best plain calf - merely slightly tinted with vegetable dye - applied by hand after the book was covered and the leather well stretched. I have also given up the use of Russia [Russia is leather from cow hide which is lovely, smooth and aromatic when new but deteriorates rapidly]; and you will perceive that in this order I have used more morocco than formerly; and when the books were in calf, the backs have been well covered with gold, which is a great preservative.
Guillaume then goes on to mention an article in the Journal of the Society of Arts (25 February 1859), ‘On the library, books and binding, particularly with regard to their restoration and preservation’, pp. 209–219. This was the text of a talk given by John Leighton. Hall had referred Guillaume to this in his letter dated 16 April 1860 which the bookseller enclosed for Redmond Barry's information.5
Hall had written:
In reply to your question as to the cause of the destruction of the bindings in this Library, I can confidently state it is mainly due to two causes. Extreme dryness of atmosphere [and] the free use of gas.
The subsidiary agents are, the use of chemical ingredients in dying the fancy calf used generally, & in which the destruction takes place. Metallic oxides, & Oxalic acid, are I am assured, often employed in the preparation of the leather, & in binding. These under ordinary circumstances of a moderate temperature perhaps of 65 degrees; & of such ventilation being not exposed to gas, would be [sound?] but where bad ventilation, heat &
gas are combined, ruin to the backs of all Russia and calf bindings invariably ensued. If you will refer to the paper I have noticed to you in the journal of the Society of Arts [no. 327 - in vol. 7, F. A. G i.e. F. A. Guillaume] you will find the chemical analysis of Dr. Letheby which should be forwarded to the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, as it will fully establish the correctness of the opinion I now give from experience. To overcome the evil here, Morocco is the only remedy. If all cases were kept close under glass, the binding could be protected … I am disposed to think glass fronts would almost obviate every danger to be anticipated from atmosphere, gas and the extreme impurity of the London air, arising from smoke, dust &c. which greatly [detracts?] from the beauty of good bindings.
I have found vellum, cloth & Morocco the only safe materials for binding. Any description of Morocco insures from the peculiar destruction of calf but I think the best Levant or French is to be preferred.
There is much made of inferior quality - highly worked up.
Vellum contracts very much by heat & in London becomes insufferably greasy and dirty.
Guillaume remarked in his letter,
I don't entirely agree with Mr. Hall's note, as I have been carefully over the Athenaeum Library, and I found that although the destruction of the Russia and the colored calf bindings was total, yet I found the undyed calf in very good preservation; but the morocco was not so infallible as he seems to think for I shewed him many books (bound even by Hayday regardless of expense) the leather of which was perceptibly going.
These remarks on morocco were found to be true in the report made at the end of the century, once again by a Committee set up by the Society of Arts. I will refer to that in more detail shortly.
Guillaume also reported on his discussions with Mr. Watts, Head of the Reading Room at the British Museum, ‘who kindly devoted a great part of two days in taking me over the Library and explaining all the various arrangements &c….'. His primary concern was with Barry's intention of relating the classification scheme to the colours of the bindings.
He [i.e. Mr. Watts] considers it unadvisable for the following reasons:- he read Mr. Hall's letter in the first place and expressed his general acquiescence with that gentleman's views.
He also stated
That no two living men would agree with regard to the classification of twenty books under twenty heads.
Books all one color, when placed together, renders it difficult to distinguish one work from another.
Dyed calf fades very rapidly, and although they have no gas and good ventilation, it lasts very little time.
On the matter of coloured bindings matched to specific subjects, Guillaume quotes Mr. Watt,
The Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library seem to be laboring under a false impression, caused probably by seeing a “Plan of the Reading Room of the British Museum” … as to the arrangement there; the colors in the plan bearing no reference whatever to the binding.
Barry was not used to librarians, trades-people and employees of gentlemen's clubs presuming to advise him on anything, and replied that he was already aware of such matters and felt there would be no such problems in the fresh air of Melbourne. He wrote to Guillaume on 16 June 1860.6
It is convenient to reply separately to your letter of the 18th of April respecting the binding of Books in different colored leather. [Barry had already written another letter on 16th June to Guillaume on the current book order]
I must express my satisfaction for the attention you have bestowed on the subject and my thanks for the information the letter contains.
However it is apparent that my suggestions have not been distinctly understood. I feel no slight hesitation in opposing my opinion or experience to that of the Gentlemen who have been so good as to favor you with the benefit of theirs, but I believe the conditions and influences to which books are subject in the Melbourne Public Library are very different from those which books in London Libraries undergo. Here we enjoy perfect ventilation and absolute freedom from damp, smoke, soot, or the disagreeable atmospheric and climatic annoyances of which in England complaint is made. Gas hitherto has not produced the deleterious effects which have been so destructive in the Athenaeum Library and elsewhere in Europe.
Of these I was apprised some three years since, and our Librarian has been particularly observant on this head, and care has been taken that the backs of books in the cases be wiped in the morning before the admission of the Public. To the damp from the hands of the reader may be attributed some at least of the injury to the binding.
He gave ground on the matter of the coloured bindings, though in such a way as to cause still more irritation to the unhappy bookseller. Barry fell back on an earlier plan of having different coloured lettering pieces placed on the spine,
By altering the number and position of these lettering pieces the general distinctive character of the works can be observed at once.
In other words, he now expected Guillaume to instruct the binders to place the lettering pieces in different panels on the spine of the books, although he agreed, almost in passing, at the end of the letter, to the use of primary colors only.
So, Barry thought the deterioration of leather bindings would not be a problem. That he was altogether too self-assured on this can be seen by anyone who visits the State Library of Victoria's stacks and sees bay after bay of red-rot.
Ron Eadie, the chief binder at the Library in the mid 1980s, wrote a report with the help of other conservation staff at the State Library, in which he calculated that it would take several thousand years to repair the bindings in the collection given the staffing levels at that time. Partly as a result of this report, the approach of the State Library's Preservation Department now is, in most cases, not to reback and repair bindings, but to box the books. Apart from the obvious savings in time, this approach has the advantage of preserving the bibliographic record.
Although the effects of the environment on bindings, particularly when gas was used, had been known since the 1840s, books continued to be stored in gas-lit rooms. Obviously it would have been inconvenient to do otherwise.
The leather continued to deteriorate, and not only on books; leather armchairs were also affected.
In 1899 the Society for the Arts sponsored another enquiry into the subject. It arose from an initiative of the Library Association. The Society formed a Committee to investigate the durability of leathers then being used for binding and to try to ascertain the reasons for the obvious inferiority of the bindings done during the Victorian period. The Chairman was Viscount Cobham. Members included the binders, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, Douglas Cockerell, Miss S. T. Prideaux, and Joseph Zaehnsdorf; librarians Cyril Davenport, E. Gordon Duff, and Richard Garnett; and several representatives of the leather industry. The report was presented to the Society on 17 June 1901.
After examining a wide range of leather bindings from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, they found that nineteenth century bindings, particularly those from about 1830, deteriorated much more quickly than those from earlier periods.
Early specimens of red morocco from the 16th to the end of the 18th century were found in good condition, and of all the leathers noticed, this seems to be the least affected by the various conditions to which it has been subjected. In the opinion of the scientific Sub-Committee, most of this leather has been tanned with sumach or some closely allied tanning material. Morocco bindings earlier than 1860 were generally found to be in fairly good condition, but morocco after that date seems to be much less reliable, and in many cases has become utterly rotten. During the latter part of the 18th century it became customary to pare down calf until it was as thin as paper. Since about 1830 hardly any really sound calf seems to have been used, as, whether thick or thin, it appears generally to have perished. Sheep-skin bindings of the early part of the century are many of them in good condition. Since about 1860 sheepskin as sheepskin is hardly to be found. Sheepskins are grained in imitation of other leathers, and these imitation-grained leathers are generally found to be in a worse condition than any of the other bindings, except perhaps some of the very thin calfskin. Undyed modern pigskin seems to last well, but some coloured pig skin bindings have entirely perished. Modern leathers dyed with the aid of sulphuric acid are all to be condemned. In nearly every case Russia leather was found to have become rotten, at least in bindings of the last fifty years.7
Many of the reasons were already known and have been referred to above, but one major question was: why was it that the gas and other environmental factors did not have such a marked effect on the older bindings?
Questionnaires were sent to all the major libraries, asking such questions as to the type of lighting they used. Trinity College, Cambridge, Trinity College, Dublin and Magdelen College, Oxford had no artificial lighting. The librarians in the first and last of these reported that they had noticed no deterioration in leather bindings in the nineteenth century.8 These were exceptions; the replies to the questionnaire endorsed what was already known, that deterioration in nineteenth century bindings was a major problem.
The environmental factors we have already alluded to were found to be the chief culprits; but it was the findings of the sub-Committee set up to investigate the matter scientifically which proved what many had already suspected, that chemicals used in the tanning process during the Victorian period were to blame. They found that the use of sulphuric acid as a ‘brightening agent’ or in the dying process was one of the major causes of deterioration.9
It was found that leathers tanned by different processes varied ‘very much in their resistance to other influences such as light, heat, and gas fumes.’10 Sumach tanned leather was the best; those tanned by tanning agents from the ‘catechol’ group the worst.
The tanning process itself carried the seeds of destruction for the leather bindings. Just as the wood pulp used to make paper from the Victorian period onwards has left us with the legacy of brittle books.
The report was published in book form, together with samples of the different types of leather in 1905. Its recommendations were taken seriously by the leather industry, and by the binders. Of course leather is no longer as common a binding material as it was a hundred years
ago, but twentieth-century leather bindings do not seem as vulnerable as those used in the nineteenth. However, hundreds of thousands of books bound in the nineteenth century have continued to deteriorate long after gas lighting has been replaced by electricity.
‘Red-rot’ is irreversible and is not susceptible of improvement through the application of leather dressing.
Research has continued, particularly in the British Museum, now the British Library. It was recommended that a potassium lactate solution be applied to the books to halt the problem. This appeared to work for a while, but was not a long-term success and has been generally discontinued as a treatment, although I believe it is still applied to new leather as a preventative.
I wonder what twentieth century books will look like in a hundred years time. The ugly buckram bindings will still be indestructible, but the paper pages of the text blocks will probably have broken down into brown, brittle flakes. I have always refused to panic over the issue of brittle paper, but when you put yourself back into the nineteenth century and read the comments of librarians about the deterioration of leather bindings, sometimes over as short a period as seven or eight years, you can see how widespread disasters can overwhelm the books in your care, while you look on in disbelief.


William Blades, The Enemies of Books, 2nd ed., London, Elliot Stock, 1888, pp. 29–31.


Redmond Barry, Two papers read by Sir Redmond Barry, at the conference of Librarians, held at the London Institution, October 1877, London, G. Norman and Son, [1877]. The first paper was ‘On binding’, the second ‘On lending libraries’.


VPRS 4366, Redmond Barry to F. A. Guillaume, Letter Books of the Melbourne Public Library, Vol. I, 1853–1860, p. 318. Victorian Public Record Office.


VPRS 5888 Melbourne Public Library. Correspondence inward from Guillaume 1859–1860, F. A. Guillaume to Barry, 18 April 1860. VPRO.


ibid., letter enclosed with Guillaume's of 18 April 1860.


Barry to F. A. Guillaume, 16 June 1860. MPL Letter Book, vol. I, p. 354–356,


Society of Arts. Report of the Committee on Leather for Bookbinding, London, George Bell, 1905, pp. 8–9.


Ibid., p. 92–93.


Ibid., p. 12.