THE LEATHER BIBLE vs THE MASS MARKET BIBLE
Before we consider the many types of genuine leather Bibles, let’s take a closer look at the recent surge in popularity of synthetic leather Bibles.
THE FOUR E’s Of SYNTHETIC LEATHER BIBLES
The ethical reasons pertain to individuals who are not personally comfortable with the use of animal hides to make book or Bible bindings, furniture, clothing, shoes, purses, wallets, belts, or other accessories. Such people are often also vegetarian or vegan in their diets. These convictions can range from simply being a personal preference, to being a committed animal rights activist.
As it pertains specifically to leather Bible bindings, the ethical argument is today a minority view among buyers in the Christian marketplace (those who purchase Bibles). This is because the dominant view among the demographic group of Bible buyers typically favors the Biblical mandate of Mankind having a responsible dominion of stewardship over the animals, and feeling free to use animals for food, for certain types of testing without which human lives would be put at risk, and to use animal derived products to enhance our lives. Of course, this is not a license to tolerate needless animal cruelty in any form, however it often comes down to one’s own conviction regarding what exactly constitutes appropriate and acceptable use of animals. Most Christians do believe that it is possible to have ethically sourced animal derived products, though some disagree, and sensitivity toward how we treat animals and our responsible stewardship of our world’s resources continues to be an increasing source of concern and debate today.
The environment related reasons overlap with the ethical concerns. Some people believe raising animals for their hides, (which is almost always a byproduct of raising animals for food), contributes to environmental harm. This includes the legitimate concerns about chemicals used to treat leathers getting into the water supply, as well as the more controversial modern theories regarding alleged outsized anthropogenic influences on the climate, (though most Christians remain skeptical of the underlying motives behind such theories).
The economy related reasons are obvious, and are the primary factor pushing many people to choose synthetic leather. It simply costs less to buy a synthetic leather Bible than to buy most genuine leather Bibles.
The extended durability of high end synthetic leathers is a more recent argument, because 21st century technological advances have greatly improved the durability of certain high-end synthetic leather products. We also see synthetic leathers that much more accurately imitate the appearance and feel of genuine leather… though none yet that attempt to replicate the distinctive scent of a genuine leather product.
MODERN HIGH END SYNTHETIC LEATHER BIBLES
This revolution in high end synthetic leathers has been led by Italian manufacturers who produce smooth grained synthetic leather under such brand names as “Fiscagomma”, and fuzzy nap suede-like reverse calf synthetic leather under such brand names as “Alcantara”. The use of Alcantara synthetic suede leather has become ubiquitous in high end automobile interiors, starting with Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, etc… and in more recent years finding its way into more affordably priced cars. Because these synthetic materials do not crack and degrade as quickly as genuine leather when exposed to heat and sunlight, they are a natural choice (well, technically an un-natural choice) for the punishing environment of car interiors.
Touted by their manufacturers as “better than leather”, (one of which actually sought to trademark that phrase), this new generation of extremely impressive synthetic leathers has taken by storm not only the automotive interior industry, but also the clothing and accessories industries. This is because for all their acclaimed durability, most consumers still cannot tell them apart from genuine leather. And ultimately, if it’s good enough for Ferrari, it’s probably good enough for your Bible’s binding, right?
WHY GENUINE LEATHER BIBLES?
First is simply tradition and sentiment. Especially among older buyers, the value of tradition carries a strong pull toward genuine leather. They think of their father’s Bible, or their Family Bible, or the Bible they grew up with, and invariably these were genuine leather Bibles. The sentiment of this association strikes a deep emotional chord. As any marketer will tell you, people buy based upon emotion more frequently than they buy based upon logic.
Second, is the perception of quality. We can talk all day about the superior strength and durability of synthetic leathers introduced within the past twenty years, but genuine animal hide leather has a centuries long association with high quality, and that will not be shaken from our collective cultural consciousness any time soon. It should also be noted that genuine leather Bible bindings, if properly cared for by not leaving them in the sun, and treating them with a good leather preservative moisturizing lotion once every few years, can last much longer than a human life span. Indeed, many antique Bibles that are multiple centuries old, and were properly cared for, are still in their original leather bindings. For most people, if they can get more than fifty years out of a genuine leather binding, there is no meaningful advantage to a synthetic binding offering greater longevity than that. It is past the point of diminishing returns.
Third, is the feeling of situational appropriateness of a natural leather binding specifically as it relates to the binding on a Bible, as opposed to a synthetic material binding on a Bible. Let us remember that the Bible is filled with accounts of animals being sacrificed unto The Lord. Beyond that observation however, in a broader sense; the message of the Bible encompasses that which God has made, and how nature itself is glorifying unto God. In contrast, so much of what Man has made and done is referenced within the context of sin and imperfection, and being a mere imitation of that which the Lord has made. This argument is certainly just an analogy, and should not be taken to a literal extreme, or we would end up living in a technologically primitive world. Nevertheless, the general feeling of situational appropriateness of natural genuine leather protecting the pages of God’s Word, rather than using a material attempting to imitate natural leather, is something that carries emotional impact that can transcend reason.
Fourth, is the ability to stamp and tool genuine leather. Many people like to have their name stamped in gold onto the cover of their Bible. This is easily done with most types of genuine leather. However imitation leather products must be stamped at the factory during the manufacturing process with any desired impressions or customizations, because the finished product is too durable to accept any after-market stamping.
Fifth, is the scent of genuine leather. The smell of animal hide is not something than any artificially manufactured material can accurately replicate… at least, not yet. It is curious to note that the musky scent produced by real leather is actually due to the extremely slow decomposition of the hide, releasing that scent into the air. That means the scent is an indication of the natural break down of leather, which is why synthetic products cannot replicate it well. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive that decomposition of animal hide would be perceived as a desirable smell. However, in much the same way that the scent of cooking meat produces a positive reaction for most people, the scent of animal hide likewise has positive associations.
WHAT IS BONDED LEATHER?
TYPES OF GENUINE LEATHER BIBLE BINDINGS
Full Grain Leather is the full thickness of the animal’s hide. While that may sound like the ideal choice; full grain leather is almost never used in binding books or Bibles, because it is too thick, it shows every imperfection in the hide, and it is typically produced in such a way that the surface scratches easily.
Top Grain Leather is only slightly thinner than full grain leather because the outer surface is sanded off to remove imperfections, resulting in a flawless texture. It can then be stamped or imprinted with any design, or with a natural leather grain pattern. It is easier to work with, and also receptive to protective finishes and colored dyes, unlike full grain leather. Most of the high quality leather products you have seen are typically made of top grain leather. Most fine bindings on books and Bibles are made from top grain leather.
Suede, also known as reverse calf, is the fuzzy underside of leather. It cannot easily be stamped with a pattern, and does not hold up well to moisture. Rarely used in book binding, suede is used where a fuzzy nap texture is desired, rather than a smooth texture.
There are many other industry terms, such as aniline leather and semi-aniline leather, which refer partly to how a leather has been treated. These terms can be confusing and counter intuitive, for example semi-aniline sounds like a step down from aniline, but in fact it is more durable than aniline. A detailed explanation of all the industry terms related to the production and treatment of leather products is well beyond the limited scope of this article on Bible bindings.
ANIMAL LEATHER VARIETIES
Goatskin, often presented as Morocco leather, is a durable fine grained hide. Sheepskin or lambskin is among the softest of leathers in the animal kingdom. Leathers derived from buffalo, deer, pig, camel, or other more exotic mammals can also be found. Ostrich skin is the most popular of bird leathers. Alligator and crocodile are the most popular of lizard leathers. Eel and shark are the most popular of sea creature leathers. Obtaining leathers from endangered species and/or transporting such materials across international lines can be illegal in many jurisdictions.
One rarely seen variety of leather is called vellum. It is a smooth, hard, grainless, milky white material derived from animal skins, usually calf. Vellum goes through a labor intensive multi-step process to achieve its flawlessly smooth white look. Seen primarily in books bound in the 1500’s or earlier, (though still occasionally used in specialty projects today), vellum is perhaps the most durable of leathers, able to last for several centuries, but it is more sensitive to humidity and can warp more easily than other types of leather. Vellum is also used as paper in some ancient books and manuscripts.
ANCIENT BIBLES WERE ALWAYS LEATHER BIBLES
One nearly universal difference we see between ancient genuine leather Bibles, when compared to genuine leather Bibles of the past century, is the advent of the modern limp leather binding. Many leather Bibles today feature flexible covers made of real leather, but not wrapped around stiff hardback boards. This is what we call limp bound Bibles. They are almost always printed on ultra thin onion skin paper or India rice paper, which is another modern convention, used to make it possible to have a 750 page Bible that is amazingly only an inch thick.
In contrast, ancient Bibles were never limp bound. Their leather binding was wrapped around stiff wooden hardcover boards. The pages were also thick, being made of cotton prior to the 1700’s, and made of wood pulp from the 1700’s unto today. This is why ancient Bibles are usually at least around 3 inches thick, and often up to 5 inches thick.
RESTORED LEATHER BIBLE BINDINGS
Sometimes the original ancient covers, if they are ornate and worth preserving, can be salvaged and reused in a process called rebacking or respining. More frequently though, the old binding must be completely discarded, and a fresh, strong, new leather Bible, fully restored, is the result.
If a Bible is completely covered in leather, it will typically be described as full leather, and usually more specifically as full calf. Bibles with just the spine covered in leather, and cloth or marbleized cover boards are called half-calf. If the corners of the cover boards are also covered in leather, the result is called three-quarter calf. These leather-plus-cloth hybrid bindings of half-calf and three-quarter calf were at one time produced in an effort to keep the cost of the binding down by minimizing the use of the prized leather. Today, because the highly in demand labor to skillfully rebind a book is a primary factor in its cost, such partial leather bindings are usually the result of personal preference rather than significant cost savings.
Learn More About Leather Bibles & Purchase High Quality Leather Bibles
Additional information about rare and antique leather Bibles can be found on the Antique Bible Buyer’s Guide page.
An impressive inventory of original ancient leather Bibles available for sale is offered in the Ancient Rare Bibles & Books section, which is also searchable by Version, Age, Size, & Price.
For the budget-minded collector many ancient Bibles are available as high quality affordable Facsimile Reproductions. Options include economic synthetic leather bindings, and deluxe editions in genuine leather bindings.