Willman Spawn, conservator and historian of bookbinding, died quietly at home in Philadelphia on April 23, 2010, one month shy of his 90th birthday. He was an indefatigable man with boundless curiosity. At various times during his full life he pursued the study of botany, optics, paper and book conservation, the history of Quakers, and the history of bookbinding.
Born in Washington D.C., May 29, 1920, Willman developed an interest in ferns that led him as a teenager to become involved with the Biological Society of Washington. He came to the attention of the director and associate director of the Society, cataloguing their libraries, and around 1938 was introduced through them to a WPA binder at the Smithsonian from whom he learned the fundamentals of bookbinding. He later improved his craft at the stationary bindery of Socket and Fisk in Washington, D. C. The foreman allowed him to bind, observing and learning edition work, as long as he kept up with the binder on the opposite bench; he worked for free.
Willman came to Philadelphia in the late 1930s, attending the University of Pennsylvania and establishing his first bindery during his college years. World War II brought his college studies to an end. Willman served in the army as a specialist in optics, spending most of the war at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. At the close of the war he spent several months in Germany helping to identify and preserve records of Germany's optical industry.
From 1948 until 1961 he served as part-time conservator for the American Philosophical Society. During this period he also maintained a private workshop, completing conservation work for a variety of institutions and private collectors. In 1961 he became the first full-time conservator at the APS, the "Restorer of Manuscripts," a position he held until his retirement in 1985. During this period he became a noted authority on paper conservation and disaster mitigation in libraries, writing influential papers and delivering numerous lectures on both topics. In 2009 his 37-year career and his impact on the profession of conservation were recognized by the creation of the Willman Spawn Conservation Internships Fund at the APS.
His study of American bookbindings began in 1949 when Edwin Wolf 2nd showed him a copy of James Logan's Cato Major (1744), printed by Franklin, and asked whether he recognized the tooling on the plain calf binding. He did not, but began to pay attention to the bindings that he handled at the APS, other Philadelphia libraries, and eventually at well over 100 libraries across the United States, accumulating thousands of pencil rubbings of the bindings that he saw. In 1958 Willman married Carol M. Spawn and found in her a willing and capable collaborator. Together they curated a ground-breaking exhibition on the work of the Philadelphia printer, publisher, and bookbinder Robert Aitken, which opened December 1960 at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Several important articles followed on the bindings of Robert Aitken, Jane Aitken, and Francis Skinner of Newport. These studies first illustrated Willman's career-long conviction that colonial American bookbinders could be identified through careful evaluation of the tools they used to decorate bindings. During his early career Willman also worked closely with Hannah D. French, Douglas Everson, Michael Papantonio, and C. William Miller, among many others.
In 1983 he contributed an essay on the evolution of American binding styles to Bookbinding in America, 1680-1910, edited by John Dooley and James Tanis. He thus established a relationship with Bryn Mawr College, whose Maser gift of bindings is described in that volume. Upon his retirement from conservation in 1985 he was appointed Honorary Curator of Bookbindings at the Mariam Coffin Canaday Library. From that date until shortly before his death he maintained an office in the library and collected and studied all aspects of the history of bookbinding. While at Bryn Mawr he continued to publish with the assistance of Thomas E. Kinsella. Together they curated two exhibitions on bookbinding, published reference works on British and American bookbinders' tickets, and worked toward Willman's ultimate goal of publishing a comprehensive study of colonial American bookbinding.
Willman's voluminous archive of rubbings and notes on bindings and binders survives at Bryn Mawr College. It stands as a rich and deep store of material recording the particulars of the early American binding trade. Willman, however, represented the richest store of material himself. He was an extraordinary source of detail on innumerable subjects. Edwin Wolf described him as "the Nestor of early American binding history," and his ability to provide illuminating details about people, places, and books was striking. He displayed near photographic memory of bookbinding tool designs and was always willing to help identify bindings held in private and public collections. He had a vast store of historical knowledge about colonial America; in conversation it seemed as though he had known the eighteenth-century Quakers and bookmen that he discussed. His willingness to share his knowledge is attested to by the many books and articles that give him thanks. His personal life was just as rich a repository. Willman could share early memories of playing in the White House (invited by the son of the cook), and of seeing Calvin Coolidge, then president, stopping to wave at a cat in a shop window. He knew and could tell of most of the major figures in conservation and book history over the past 70 years; his memories of Hannah D. French were especially warm. He was particularly well known in Philadelphia book circles. Mustachioed and wearing his trademark bowtie, he continued to share his insights and knowledge with conservators and booklovers, young and old, until his death.
A member of the American Antiquarian Society, Philobiblon, the Grolier Club, and a shareholder in the Library Company of Philadelphia, Willman was also a long-time Friend, serving as Clerk of the Monthly Meeting, Clerk of the John Martin Trust committee, and as the single person who knew the location of all archives relating to the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia. He is survived by his beloved wife Carol, his son Andrew and wife Carla and their children Zachary and Kyle. He is also survived by his son Peter and a son David and his partner Scott. A Memorial Meeting will be held Saturday May 29, 2010 at 3 P.M. at the Arch St. Quaker Meeting House at 320 Arch St. Philadelphia, PA 19103.