Early in the 19th century, the need for speed, simplicity, and economy in book production led to the introduction of cloth as a binding material and casing as a binding process. These developments, in conjunction with technological advances in the printing industry, led directly to the rise of the publishers' bookbindings: i.e., bindings designed for and manufactured in quantity for a publisher.

This exhibit chronicles the growth of English and American publishers' binding from its infancy in the 1830s to its decline in the early 20th century. Highlighted are the distinct changes in design that reflected not only technical innovations in the means of book production and decoration but shifting social and cultural trends as well. Viewed as a group, publishers' bindings represent a revolution in the history of the book. Viewed individually, each binding offers an often gilded window to the fashion of its day.

Throughout the eighteenth century, books were primarily published by booksellers who retained part of an edition to sell in their own shop and sold the rest, usually in sheets, to other booksellers. The bookseller/publisher would advertise his publications in two or three styles of binding at different prices, to suit a range of clients. Some of his customers might prefer to commission a binding on their own. The retailers who bought sheets would in turn have their copies bound to meet the needs of their own customers' tastes and pockets. Thus, one edition might be split between several booksellers, bookbinders and styles of binding.

Some categories of publications were issued stitched, with paper wrappers, as was common in continental Europe. English and American book buyers, who preferred stiff covers, were offered "paper over boards." Along with paper wrappers, this style was intended to be temporary, but was often the only binding a volume would receive.

By the early nineteenth century, publishing was separating from bookselling and binders began to get larger batches of work directly from publishers. Since the cost of binding fell to them, publishers sought an attractive binding style that was less costly than traditional hand binding in leather, but more permanent than paper wrappers or paper over boards. Bookbinders, struggling to keep up with the increased output of the printing trade and the demands of the publishers, sought a faster means of production.

The need for speed, simplicity, and economy in book production led to the introduction of cloth as a binding material and casing as a binding process. The dress fabrics silk and velvet had been used sporadically in binding but lacked durability and were expensive. In the early 1820s, the English publisher William Pickering introduced edition bindings in cloth. Pickering's binder, Archibald Leighton, worked to make cloth commercially viable by adding a fill, or sizing agent, that would both render the cloth impervious to adhesive and allow it to take dye evenly. In 1825 Leighton had ready a plain book cloth and, by 1828, a smooth, glazed cloth. To publishers, this new book cloth offered a binding material of some permanence at a cost only slightly higher than paper over boards. To binders, book cloth offered a material that was easier to work than leather, thereby helping them to speed production.

The practice of case binding, in which a book's cover, or case, is made independently of, even simultaneously with, the textblock, and attached to it primarily by adhesion of the endpapers, closely followed the introduction of book cloth. Although casing remained a hand operation until the end of the century, it greatly simplified the binding process and allowed for mass production. The developments of book cloth and case binding, in conjunction with technological advances in the printing industry, led directly to the advent of the publishers' bookbinding: i.e., a binding designed for and manufactured in quantity for a publisher.

While traditional "fine binding" continued during the nineteenth century, driven by new ranks of collectors, it was virtually a separate trade from edition binding. Some binderies carried out both types of work. As the century progressed, edition binding became increasingly mechanized and, for its part, turned from a craft to an industry.

This exhibit showcases American and English publishers' bindings in cloth, grouped by decade to emphasize the stylistic and technological changes that occurred. Some styles of publishers' bindings remained popular throughout several decades; each has been placed in the decade in which it began to appear in earnest. The placement of a book in one case does not indicate that its type would not be seen again in other decades.

Until the end of the century, America imported book cloth from England and the use of any given cloth is roughly contemporaneous. In the 1830s, American publishers adhered to the English models of taste, but by the mid-forties, American style began to define itself. Perhaps due to differences in the sophistication of the book buying public and the book trade itself, as well as the skills of the tradesmen, American books of the early nineteenth century display a sort of forthrightness that their English cousins do not. As the decades and styles changed and American craftsmen's skills improved, the decorated books they produced frequently retained a simple, direct splendor. Nineteenth century publishers' bindings offer not only a tangible record of a transformational period in the history of the book, but gilded windows to our social and cultural history.

Andrea Reithmayr

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