Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gold-Stamped Publishers' Bindings of the 19th Century

I. Cloths > Embossed and Patterned

The first publishers' cloth bindings appeared in the nineteenth century in the book trade's search for a cheap, sturdy covering material. In earlier centuries, velvets and brocades were used as book coverings; they were more expensive than leather, however, and not very sturdy. By the eighteenth century, cloth was used only occasionally for book coverings, in special silk bindings or in amateur bindings, such as those in Robert Southey's famous "Cottonian" library, which were covered in cotton fabrics by his daughters.

In the late eighteenth century, a few publishers began to issue books in uniform bindings. The same title might be available in leather, or in paper-covered boards. The first publishers' cloth-covered books appeared in the 1820s in plain calico, with printed labels. The effect was rather drab, and attempts were made to find more interesting cloths, which were treated to be impervious to glue.

In the 1830s, ribbon-embossed cloths with elaborate floral or geometric patterns were popular, but too expensive to vie with the new machine-grained cloths that imitated leather or featured various patterns. In search of novelty, publishers used striped or other festive cloths mid-century for a few years, especially for gift books. Bindings can be roughly dated by those who know the fashions in color and grain throughout the century.

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