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The Folded Sheet

Back when books were rolls of paper, the maker only had to make one choice. Would this be a horizontal or a vertical book? The “pages” of the book, thus divisions of between segments of text, were all placed on the same sheet either with the sheet covered from left to right or, in the case of a vertical book, from top to bottom. Each unfurling of the roll would reveal the next block of text. But when rectangular books appeared later, the placement of text on each sheet to be bound together became a much more complicated matter. And descriptive terms multiplied. Here we’ll content ourselves with showing four levels of folding and illustrating the first two. Here are the rules:

   Name Number of Folds Leaves to Sheet Pages per Sheet
   Folio 1 2 2
   Quarto 2 4 8
   Octavo 3 8 16
   Sixteenmo 4 16 32

Naming conventions are not straight-forward. Folio comes from folium, a leaf, and hints at singleness. The quarto has only two folds; its name comes from the number of individual leaves produced—ditto with the octavo. The trade today has abandoned Latin as more folds are added. A sheet folded four times is called a sixteenmo. The strange suffix, mo, comes from its once Latin name of sextodecimo. In this game it is best to remember that the paper actually imprinted with words is called the sheet, the individual divisions printed on both sides are leaves, and each side of a leaf is a page.

Some illustrations, courtesy of Wikibooks here, will produce a minimal insight into the complexities of sheet-folding. We begin with a flyer of only four pages, a drastic simplification. Notice that the pages are no longer printed sequentially, as on a scroll. On one side of the sheet, page 4 is printed first and, next to it, page 1. On the back of the sheet are printed pages 2 and 3, printed side by side. When this sheet is folded in the center, we get a document of four pages in proper sequence.

The second illustration (above) shows this approach applied to a booklet with sixteen pages, thus four folios that will be bound together—these days usually by stapling on so thin a product. Notice here that the first sheet bears on its front page 16 followed by page 1; on the back are printed page 2 followed by page 15.

The third illustration shows the arrangement of a single quarto sheet. Because these sheets are folded twice, the front of the sheet carries text printed on the bottom right side up but, at the top, upside down. After the fold, of course, all of the text will be oriented in the same pleasing direction—no need to learn to read upside down or to flip the pamphlet with each turn of the page. Needless to say, as soon as we exceed eight pages in a quarto, the placement of the text changes again—all depending on how many pages there are in the work. The typesetter’s job isn’t simple. The manuscript arrives in tidy order, text on one side of single sheets. Each must then find its final place on a different sheet to be imprinted until the combination of folding, gathering, and binding places them exactly where they are supposed to be.

In modern practice a single sheet may be folded up to six times. The six-way fold produces a category called sixty-fourmo. Six folds produce 64 leaves each of which carries two pages for a total 128 pages per single piece of paper printed on both sides.

This much merely to show the tip of an iceberg to indicate what happens to that single large sheet of paper on which typesetting of a manuscript begins. For a much more daunting experience, we refer you to this page on trussel.com. It shows data from the American Library Association illustrating the many different varieties of folds, the names they are called, and the sizes of books that they produce.

Folded sheets, beyond the folio size, of course, need to be cut at the top and on the “open” side before a book becomes accessible. This is a subject surrounded by a certain romance—hence we’ll leave it for another day. Here mere geometry will have to suffice.


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