Today when you buy a book at a bookstore, you expect it to come already bound from the publisher. But that wasn’t always the case. Before 1830, when you purchased a book from a bookseller, you were presented with a number of options. You could choose among more or less expensive leather bindings to suit your taste and budget, or you could even buy the book unbound in sheets or in temporary “paper over boards” so that you could commission your own binding.
That began to change around 1830. As literacy increased, there was an increasing demand for more affordable books, and publishers started to look for more economical ways to bind books than individually-crafted leather bindings. The result was edition-binding, or wholesale binding by the publisher for the mass market. Publishers developed book cloth that was much less expensive than leather but could be decorated in similar ways, such as with blind stamping and gold stamping (more on that later).
Most mass-market books from the 1830s through the 1910s were bound this way, often referred to as publisher’s bindings, after which they began to be replaced by paper dust jackets, which are still used today. Throughout the decades, the styles of these bindings have changed to reflect the social periods and artistic movements of their eras.
Here is a selection of some publisher’s bindings that can be found in the stacks of ISU Special Collections.
This 1851 copy of Poetry of Observation and Other Poems, by William Asbury Kenyon is an example of the use of blind stamping. Stamping impressed a pattern into the surface of the binding, and “blind” means that there is no gold or color added to the surface. The next picture shows the use of gold and black stamping together.
The Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Volume, published in 1877, shows common characteristics of 1870s bindings, especially the influence of the British architect and furniture designer Charles Eastlake. Eastlake style can be seen here in the asymmetrical design and the use of strong diagonals.
This binding is a good example of a Victorian binding from the 1880s with its elaborate use of stamping, colors, and images. This particular cover appeared on the first edition of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and continued with other books in the series, including this copy of Phronsie Pepper: the Last of the “Five little Peppers”.
The 1890s was a period known for binding designers. These were usually professional artists, often associated with a particular publishing house. One of these designers was Sarah Wyman Whitman, whose design of the book Dorothy Q, Together with a Ballad of the Boston Tea Party & Grandmother’s Story of Bunker Hill Battle by Oliver Wendell Holmes is shown above. In contrast to the lavish designs of the Victorian 1880s, Whitman’s designs featured simple and elegant forms and her own distinctive lettering style.
This gives just a taste of some of the artistic styles to be found in publisher’s bindings. If this whets your appetite for more, check out these excellent online exhibits:
Publisher’s Bindings Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books by the University of Alabama, University Libraries, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, provides extensive galleries and historical, literary and artistic essays.
Beauty for Commerce: Publisher’s Bindings, 1830-1910 by the University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries, Rare Books and Special Collections is organized by decade and provides a good overview of the development of the publisher’s binding over time.
And check out an earlier Parks Library Preservation blog post from our Conservator Melissa about her trip to the Rare Book School a few years ago to learn more about the 19th century publisher’s bindings in our collections.
As always, we hope to see you in Special Collections to look more closely at our fascinating rare book collections.