By mid-century, materials and production techniques had advanced sufficiently to allow more sophisticated and complex designs. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had a tremendous impact on design throughout all of the applied arts, including trade and edition binding. Especially in England in the 1850s-60s, the elaborately embellished gift book was at its peak and is often considered emblematic of high Victorian design. The dense use of ornament on many of these books rendered the cloth beneath almost invisible. Beginning in the late 1840s and continuing through this decade, gift books were often cased in rich red cloth, which displayed the gold to great effect.
In England, the signatures of professional designers – John Leighton, Robert Dudley and William Harry Rogers among them – began to appear regularly on bindings. In America, what signatures appear on covers are almost always those of the die engraver, e.g. John Feely or William Tompson, or the binder. During this decade American publishers began blind stamping their names, often in initial form, in a central cartouche on book covers. Overall blind stamped designs are also a common feature of 'fifties books, particularly in America.
In both countries, gift books, which occupied the relatively high end of the commercial book trade, were produced concurrently with more affordable books that featured more restrained decoration. Some unusual binding styles, including papier-mâché, "Relievo", and tortoiseshell, were popular for brief periods. Central vignettes, whether formal or pictorial, increased in size from the 1840s, sometimes crowding into their ornamental frames. On mid-range books, front covers were often decorated with both gold and blind blocking while the back was blocked only in blind, perhaps as a cost saving technique. Lettering became expressive, often drawing on forms from nature, like branches and vines, a trend that would continue for several decades.
By mid-century, competition between publishers and the overall pace of publishing had increased. Edition binderies were sometimes advanced a dummy copy of a book so that they could make cases before the edition was even printed. By 1851, a typical American-made stamping press was capable of making sixteen impressions per minute, i.e., a skilled pressman could decorate sixteen cases per minute. Once the printer delivered the edition, each copy was gathered and sewn for joining to the waiting cases. Large trade binderies could case in up to a one thousand volumes in six hours.
Bayard Taylor. A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853. New York: G. P. Putnam & Co., 1855.
Emily F. Carlen. One Year. New York: Charles Scribner, 1853.
A Visit to India, in pale green, is decorated with both overall blind embossing and the publisher's monogram in a central cartouche that became common among American publishers in the 1850s. The publisher's name is also stamped in gold at the bottom of the spine. The Scribner's title, in a morocco grain cloth, is blind stamped with a book decorated with "C. S." the publisher's monogram, also inside an oval frame. Both books' front and back boards are the same, with gilt titles on their spines.
Henry Mayhew. The Wonders of Science. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856.
Unusual at this date, this ribbon-embossed cloth has the all-over blind stamping common to the decade. The "magician's hands" appear on quite a few Harper titles of the period.
Samuel Rogers. Poetical Works. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1854.
In the publisher's advertisement at the back of this volume for their "Elegant Books", this title is described as "splendidly illustrated with thirteen Line Engravings, expressly for this work, and by a Portrait in 'stipple' by Anderton, from a Painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Bound in muslin, gilt and gilt edges, $3.75."
Oliver Goldsmith. The Vicar of Wakefield. London: John van Voorst, 1855.
This binding may be the only one designed by Henry Shaw, the antiquary and watercolorist who produced several books on manuscript illumination and medieval and Elizabethan art and architecture. It is unusual for the date to be included in the design, since that would prove limiting if the volume did not sell out in that particular binding. The back board is stamped in blind to the same design.
Frances Percival, ed. Sweet Home. Boston: L.P. Crown & Co., 1856.
J. Wesley Hanson. The Ladies' Casket. Lowell: Merrill & Straw, 1853.
An advertising insert offers Sweet Home for sale in "plain cloth, $1; cloth, full gilt, $1.25; full gilt morocco, $1.75". The small difference in price between full gilt cloth, like this copy, and leather, is remarkable. These bindings, though unsigned, were almost certainly executed by Benjamin Bradley of Boston.
Robert A. Willmott, ed. The Poets of the Nineteenth Century. London: George Routledge & Co., 1857.
Bound by Edmonds & Remnant, this binding displays the influence of the East. It is signed "I S" [John Sliegh] on the spine and blocked only in blind on the back board. The text illustrations were engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.
W. H. Bartlett. The Nile Boat. New York: Harper & Bros., 1851.
An illustrated American gift book in morocco grain cloth and elaborate gold blocking on both boards. The publisher's name is stamped in gold at the bottom of the spine.
John Bullock. The American Cottage Builder. New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1854.
The central vignette appears in blind on the back board. The publisher's name is gilt at the bottom of the spine. "House pattern books" were published in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century.
James Rennie. Insect Architecture. London: John Murray, 1857.
Bound by Edmonds & Remnant, whose ticket is pasted inside the back board. This cloth is a moiré grain. By mid-century, Edmonds & Remnant, Westley's and Leighton, Son & Hodge all employed hundreds of workers in factory-like buildings and were known in the trade as the "big three".
Thomas Day. The History of Sandford & Merton. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1852.
One of the first novels written intentionally for children, Day’s book was first published in 1783. It contains a strong anti-slavery message and remained popular for well over a century.
James Parton. The Life of Horace Greeley. New York: Mason Bros., 1855.
Horace Greeley was founding editor of the New York Tribune in 1841. The gilt vignette shows a four-cylinder type-revolving press. Developed by Robert Hoe in 1840, these presses facilitated the rapid and cheap production of newspapers. The four-cylinder press was superceded by six, eight and, finally, ten impression cylinders by 1857.
The Rappers. New York: H. Long & Bros., 1854.
The gilt central ornament was adapted from the engraving on the frontispiece , which is signed "T.H. Waites". The scene is repeated in blind on the back board. Blind stamping on the spine simulates the bands of traditional hand binding, and the publisher's name is stamped in gold, along with the title and a small vignette.
The Book of Parlour Games. Philadelphia: H. C. Peck & Theo. Bliss, 1858.
Parlour games, or "household amusements" were popular during much of the Victorian age. Though unsigned, this cover engraving is very much in the style of John Feely.
John P. Norton. Elements of Scientific Agriculture. Albany, NY: Erastus H. Pease & Co., 1850.
The wonderfully detailed central vignette, somewhat surprising on such a title, is larger than it would have been on an 1840s book. The center of the back board is blind stamped with the publisher's initials inside a decorative frame: the publisher's name also appears on the spine.
Samuel Batchelder, ed. Poetry of the Bells. Boston: H. O. Houghton & Co., 1858.
Expressive, nature-based lettering like the titling on this volume was to remain in wide use for several decades. Both boards are decorated in gold and blind.