The bookcase is one of our best weapons against the universe's natural tendency to move things into increasingly disorganized states. Today, it has established itself as one of humankind's most useful and versatile pieces of furniture. But before the bookcase, was the world drowning in a chaotic sea of haphazardly strewn books?
Not exactly. As is the case with most innovations, necessity was the mother of invention. For centuries, books were handwritten and therefore extremely rare and valuable. Early books were so rare, in fact, that wealthy owners typically carried them on their journeys in specially designed, often gold-gilded and jewel-studded coffers.
It wasn't until the development of better printing techniques in Europe in the 15th Century that books became so common that the need for storing and displaying them arose. Before the printing press, the larger collections of books that existed in churches and castles were stacked flat on their sides upon shelves or inside cupboards.
Not only did the printing press enable bookmakers to print exponentially faster than ever before, but it also let bookmakers print book titles on the spine. It was at this time that people began to arrange books in the fashion we know today: standing vertically in rows, with the spine facing outward.
As books became more common, cupboards filled up quickly. More books meant more frequent use, which led to the removal of cupboard doors for convenient access. Indeed, today's bookcase descends directly from the standard household cupboard of the Middle Ages.
The first bookcases were typically constructed of oak, which is still considered the prudent choice for a traditional library. Practicality was crucial as books began to accumulate in libraries, so craftsmen adhered to a necessarily basic design. In the mid 18th Century however, two Englishmen, Chippendale and Sheraton, took note of this and finally began to embellish bookcases with lozenges encased in fretwork frames. French craftsmen of the same period added charm and elegance to the typically harsh bookcase. They used fine woods, such as mahogany and rosewood, and adorned them with elaborate marquetry and bronze accents.
The movement to enhance the bookcase is curiously similar to the decoration of the old book coffers, suggesting that even though books were prolific by the mid 1700s, they were still deemed to be of great value. This is still the case today, which is why we see such a wide variety of bookcases from the most functional to the dramatically ornamented.