Exhibition in Special Collections & Archives: the Story of Publishers’ Bindings

Publishers’ Bindings on Exhibition in Fenwick Library 2nd floor

Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveller (NY: Putnam, 1895), gift of Wendi D. Slagle to George Mason University Libraries

Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveller (NY: Putnam, 1895), gift of Wendi D. Slagle to George Mason University Libraries

Before the Industrial Age, bookbinding had developed into a craft that dated in origins to Ancient Roman times. Books were bound by hand as a unit, almost always in some kind of animal skins. The printed pages of a book came from the print shop; book selling was another business; and bookbinders still another kind of shop. Thus booksellers bought books unbound in “sheets” from printers and might sell the books unbound but in paper wrappers to keep the pages clean until the customers could take the book to their favorite bookbinder. By the eighteenth century, at least in the export trade to American customers, evidence shows British booksellers shipping books already bound.

But not all books ever received a leather binding. A late 18th century specimen in this exhibition is in near “original form, with pages deckled and uncut, and a paper wrapper instead of a binding. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, books were also sometimes issued in paper-covered boards. Around 1810, the paper covers received direct block printing in ink.

By 1800 advances in literacy meant a growing reading public demanded more books. Events were leading to a new style of binding that would combine cheapness, mass production, and something of the elegance and durability of leather. The first cloth bound books appeared in England in the 1820s. By the 1830s, cloth became accepted by the book trade. Examples from the George Mason University Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives provide American examples.

Fabrics had to be developed to be suitable for bindings. Early cloth bindings were too insubstantial to last. Before 1830, the trade invented a successful book cloth filled with dyed starch and passed through calendaring rollers. At early stages, titles still had to be printed on papers and glued on the spine.

Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston, F. Andrews, 1839) George Mason University Libraries

Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston, F. Andrews, 1839) George Mason University Libraries

In about 1830, a new short cut was invented for bookbinding. “Casing-in” allowed covers to be made separately and only later attached to the book. The new process meant that cover decoration could be mechanized. The business of publishing then grew to combine the old crafts of printing and binding to create a finished product—the book—for sale. As the century wore on, books included the publishers’ branding as cloth colors, stamped designs, spine labels, and other evidence linked books to their publishers. Thus the use of the term “publishers’ bindings” for this new era of book production.

The Manuscript receipt book and household treasury (Philadelphia: Hartley, 1885) from the Rosemary Poole Collection, George Mason University Libraries

The Manuscript receipt book and household treasury (Philadelphia: Hartley, 1885) from the Rosemary Poole Collection, George Mason University Libraries

Once the manufacture of covers became a separate task from binding the pages, design developments followed quickly throughout the nineteenth century. Experimental graining and embossing of cloth in the 1830s was adopted so quickly that smooth cloth book bindings are rare for many decades of the nineteenth century. Soon to follow were blind-stamped curling ornament and small generalized vignettes in the 1840s. The 1850s saw more generous use of gold leaf stamping, with larger, content specific vignettes. The 1860s, at lease in Civil War torn America, brought in minimal decoration, with limited cloth graining and colors, and emblematic pictorials on book bindings. The 1870s saw the return of exuberance, with asymmetry, black ink as well as gold stamping, and Eastlake designs. During the 1880s, new colors of ink emerged along with the use of crowded, overlapping bulletin board designs.

Arthur Mangin, Les Mysteries De L’Ocean (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1883) George Mason University Libraries

Arthur Mangin, Les Mysteries De L’Ocean (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1883) George Mason University Libraries

Lettering tended to be expressive or flowing. By the 1890s and into the twentieth century, artist-signed –or un-signed–book bindings are often found. Artist bindings are characterized by highly professional layout, ungrained book cloth, and a flat, poster style. By the 1920s, printed paper book jackets – not book bindings–began to be the focus of design. The era of decorated publishers bindings came to an end.

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