Bound to Be Eye-Catching

By the 1830s in the United States and Britain, consumers began to acquire books in a form that today we take for granted: in a publishers’ binding.

Before this time, readers received their books as loose sheets in a paper wrapper that they would then have bound to order. Beginning in the nineteenth century, readers could buy books, as we do now, that were “shelf-ready” rather than in sheets. Publishers worked with binders (making it unnecessary for individual consumers to contract with them) to produce books that might capture the attention of prospective buyers. In a growing market, publishers wanted their books to stand out, and the binding became a selling point.

In addition to the aesthetic appeal they offered, publishers’ bindings also had an impact on the bottom line. As literacy rates increased, the rising demand for reading material prompted publishers to find ways to produce books more cheaply and efficiently. Advances in binding structure and technology helped; so did experimenting with a material that was cheaper than traditional covering materials (such as leather and vellum) and relatively durable: cloth.

Here at the Newberry, we have strong nineteenth-century holdings, many of which are still in their original bindings. I have chosen two American examples from the middle of the century to highlight specific decorative elements prevalent at the time. These elements, which evolved as publishers and binders understood the benefits and challenges of cloth as a covering, include the use of patterned cloth, the use of gold and blind stamping (the impression of a design left in the cloth by a stamp or die that does not have any gold or coloring), and the inclusion of a central vignette.

First we have a work called Artist-Life: or, Sketches of American Painters by Henry T. Tuckerman, published by D. Appleton & Co. and Geo. S. Appleton in 1847 in New York and Philadelphia. This book first caught my eye a few months ago. It was sitting on a cart at our second-floor circulation desk, just having been pulled as part of a systematic survey of items destined for our Conservation Lab (the covers were almost completely detached). I was immediately drawn to the rich, vibrant cloth in a red-and-maroon-striped pattern. The binding decoration includes a blind-stamped border and a blind-stamped floral motif in the corners on both the front and the back. The spine is also stamped—this time in gold with a complementary but distinctive floral and geometric motif. Lastly, this book features a gilt central vignette of two figures, one with a palette, and all gilt edges.

The second item is Childs’ Own Book of Pictures and Stories, published in 1857 by Leavitt & Allen in New York. I was drawn to this example because of the identity of the engraver of the central vignette: John Feely. Not many engravers signed their work, but one that we can identify both by signed images and stylistic consistency is Feely. Not only does the blind stamping on the cover feature extensive geometric and floral decoration, but it literally encircles and frames the large central roundel depicting children playing. At the foot of the blindfolded figure is one of Feely’s signatures: a combined J and F.

In the next decade, as we move into the Civil War, the aesthetic changes: we see more simple decoration, less gilding, and more somber colors. After the war and as we move through the end of the century we see a highly programmatic decorative schema emerge, typified by the work of the artist designers who planned not only covers but also endpapers, title pages, bookplates, and typefaces to create a holistic design package.

The Newberry collection is full of examples of publishers’ bindings. A way to get at some of them through the online catalog is to run a subject search for “Publishers’ bindings (Binding),” the results of which are then divided by city and date.

By Maggie Cusick, General Collections Services Librarian and Reference Team Leader