The Earliest Chemical Industry

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This book was commissioned from the Society by Peter Spence and Sons to commenorate the centenary of founding of that firm. It was published in a limited edition of 1,100, with one hundred of these bound in full red morocco. The remainder were bound in buckram. The book was written by Charles Singer, one of the leading scientific writers of the time. This book is given the  item number 12.5 in Folio 50 and Folio 60, and was the last book published in 1948.

The Book

An absolute sumptuous production. It is large and heavy. Monotype Baskerville type. Printed on Arnold mould-made paper at The Chiswick Press. The colour plates werer printed by Alinari of Florence. The costs of preparation and  production of the book were met by Peter Spence & Sons. My copy is bound in buckram, but there were a hundred copies bound in red morocco by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, and signed by Charles Singer and Derek Spence.

My copy is 907 of 1100.

The Text

A couple of images from the opening pages



Alum is a chemical which, among other properties, allows fabrics to take up dyes more avidly, and paper take up print. It has been known about since ancient times. This book was commissioned by Peter Spence & Sons to celebrate the foundation of the firm 100 years before. It is a remarkeable book which explores the use of and trade in alum from antiquity to modern times. Although alum is the core topic of the book, it is a fascinating book which covers many fields – linguistics, history, commerce, traditional skills, politics, science, geology,  inventions, and the development of an industry. There are over 150 illustrations and 350 notes.

Unlike most other Folio Society books it had never been published in any previous version.

The Author

Charles Singer was trained as a medical practitioner.  His natural curiosity led him into a study of the history of diseases and medicine. From this there was a natural step  into the broader history of science and technology. To the greater audience, his best known work is “The History Of Technology”.

Here is a fine summary of his life and contribution to the history of science.

The Illustrations

The book is amply illustrated with historical pictures, maps, diagrams and magnificent colour plates. A brief selection is posted.


A unique and wonderful book. An amalgam of techology, history, commerce and art.

This is the last of the 1948 books. There were 9 books published in 1949, one of which, Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities has already been posted. Sheridan’s The School for Scandal is the first, and I’m also looking forward to reading  Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Walton’s The Compleat Angler. I am halfway through the recently published The Golem so that is likely to be the subject of the next post.