Historical Book Arts Collection

Essay: 19th Century Bindings

19th Century Innovations: Binding

Text blocks were routinely sold by publishers and booksellers without a permanent binding prior to 1800. Often a simple, handmade paper wrapper protected the text pages until the client could take the book to a binder to have it custom bound. It is not until the 19th Century that American and English publishers begin to issue books in simple but studier bindings not intended to be custom bound. The increase in literacy and the demand for books by the working class meant that books were read, not collected. The first decade or two, the 1820s to 1830s, saw much experimentation, particularly in the types of materials used

1820s and 1830s [View images]

Cloth used in book covering, common today, began to be seen in the 1820s and 1830s in England and America. Examples exist of earlier cloth bindings, but these are uncommon, generally not bindings produced by publishers and often in extremely poor condition. Early bindings covered in dress-making fabric and attractive watered silks are found but unfortunately such materials degrade relatively quickly and few fine examples remain. Because of the variety of fabrics used, unusual colors including delicate shades of pink and purple may be found on books from this period. Again these are fragile dyes and many have faded to dull tan. Decorations are frequently limited to simple emblems blocked in gold and all-over patterns embossed in blind. As the century goes on, more durable fabrics and long lasting dyes are developed.

1840s and 1850s [View images]

Among the distinctive characteristics of trade cloth bindings from the 1840s and 1850s are the increased variety of fabric grains and patterns. These patterns, sometimes imitating leather grain or fine geometric arrangements, are produced by running the cloth through a steam roller before it is applied to the binding. Different patterns are identified in this collection according to the nomenclature established by the Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck. Particularly striking examples include the AA, AR, and Z styles. Decoration from this period often involves heavy use of floral, vine, and rustic patterns for frames, corner-pieces, and emblems. Natural motifs embossed in gold or black often feature prominently in the central decorations. Heavy use of embossed geometric patterns is also common.

1860s and 1870s [View images]

Trade cloth bindings of the 1860s and 1870s represent some of the earliest use of illustrative cover images, often drawn from events and themes within the work. Images commonly used include: main characters, prominent locales, and iconic objects. An interesting offshoot of this trend is the use of the same generic image on different books by the same publisher. While most of the images from this period are embossed and blocked in either gold or black, some are produced using paper paste-downs which allow for more color and nuance. Many of the unusual cloth patterns established in the decades immediately prior continue to be used to interesting effect during this period.

1880s and 1890s [View images]

Trade cloth bindings of the 1880s and 1890s represent an art form comfortable with its fundamentals and expanding into a new aesthetic. Decorations show a decreased reliance on all-over geometric and naturalistic patterns in favor of more modern design principles. These include more elaborate and expressive illustrations, experiments with spatial proportion, and asymmetry. Publishers use a narrower variety of grained and patterned fabrics, primarily restricting themselves to the more plain and durable options. Also, though found in bindings from earlier decades, books of this period make more common use of multiple colors in their cover designs.

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