American Bookbinders Museum – San Francisco, California - Atlas Obscura
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American Bookbinders Museum

This museum explores the history of the book, from scrolls to mass-produced objects through tools, stories, and massive cast-iron binding machinery (some of it operational).  

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The first thing many people say when they come into this small San Francisco museum is “I never knew this place existed.” The thing they say on their way out? “I didn’t think it would be this fascinating.” The American Bookbinders Museum tells the story of a familiar object, the book, from its earliest forms (think: scroll or clay tablet) through hand-bound, leather-covered tomes, to the glittering cloth-bound books made by the first industrial machines–many of which are on display.

There’s a ton of cast iron machinery–a huge arming press in the front entry sets the tone for the rest of the museum—that is handsome in its own right. But the small tools for gold tooling, burnishing, and otherwise making a book beautiful are stunning as well. This place tells stories of guilds and unions, immigration and literacy, women in the workforce, paper making, ink recipes, and gold leaf–and it’s all fascinating. If you’re a gearhead, look at how the machines are put together. If you’re into decorative, look at the gold-stamped Victorian books, designed to look pretty on middle-class mantelpieces.

There’s a small gallery that has rotating exhibitions and a cute little gift shop. You can take an audio tour (using your phone and your own earbuds, or a loaner table) or a paper tour. There are currently no docent tours because of Covid-19.

Know Before You Go

It's between Howard and Folsom streets on a tiny street called Clementina. There's the new MUNI station at one end.

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