These days calfskin is a somewhat rare material to bind a Bible in, and goatskin is positively exotic. But things were not always so. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, it was not uncommon for Bibles to be bound in skins like water buffalo and sealskin. This Time Magazine article from 1962 describes what Thomas Nelson was up to with the Revised Standard Version: "One year the company bought the entire North American catch of sealskin for bindings, had to turn to water buffalo hide from India when that ran out." Times were different. An Oxford Annotated RSV in French Morocco would have set you back $8.50, and Harper & Row offered a unique children's edition bound in watermarked sealskin. Imagine presenting your kid with such a thing now. Think of the baby seals! Rev. Andy Chulka, pastor of Hope Bible Church and a reader of this blog, sent me some photos of a rare find made by a friend of his. This is a vintage Oxford Scofield KJV bound in sealskin and silk sewn. It was found in mint condition along with the original box and care instructions. In the past, I've seen a couple of well-worn sealskin covers, but this is my first glimpse of how they appeared new in box.
Here's what Andy said:
"This Bible is an Old Scofield Reference Bible bound in sealskin. It was discovered at a Bible institute in downtown St. Louis that I used to attend and now my friend teaches there - Brookes Bible Institute. It's the oldest Bible institute west of the Mississippi, named after James H. Brookes who had C.I. Scofield as one of his students. My friend has discovered a cache of Old and New (1967) Scofield Reference Bibles, all in mint condition in their original boxes with the care instructions. Some were bound in goatskin (natural morocco), French morocco, and this unique one in seal skin! They are whip stitched and the paper is India Paper, some of the pages are watermarked with 'Oxford' and has the crest. When I saw this Bible, the first thing I said was, 'I need to get some pictures of this sent to J. Mark Bertrand!'"
I love the fact that my name pops into people's heads when faced with exotic Bibles! There are worse ways to be remembered.
Above: A cheerful banner announcing the sealskin cover. I assume that "silk sewed" means that the binding is sewn with silk thread. I have a vintage Oxford BCP with the same feature.
Below: The familiar Scofield page layout.
Now I'm not going to call for a revival of sealskin bindings. There are still some folks out there offering exotic skins, like Hidden House Products, which offers things like ostrich, elephant and alligator. I haven't used them, so I don't know what the results are like, but the elephant looks interesting. Still, I'm not sure I could bring myself to seek out a sealskin binding. All those little seals! So it's nice to get a glimpse of a guilt-free fait accompli:
It's beautiful, and I'm amazed that it's survived so long in pristine condition. Thanks, Andy, for sharing such a unique find!