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

X. Plain and Not So Plain Words > Introduction

Although nineteenth century design is linked in the minds of many with Victorian ornateness, gold-stamped bindings of the era were sometimes remarkably restrained. Unadorned and somewhat more embellished titles and monograms, as well as reproductions of authors' signatures (made possible by various transfer techniques of the period) were all popular cover and spine designs, particularly in the 1860s and 1870s.

Authors' names and titles had occasionally appeared on covers, until upright shelving-an innovation of the Renaissance-made spine labeling the more practical alternative. Publishers' marketing strategies had a lot to do with the reappearance of titles on book covers in the nineteenth century, as well as with the actual choices of titles, which were often quite intriguing.

Indeed, in time, the advertising potential of stamping cover and spine with words besides mere authors' names and titles was recognized. Catalogs, such as the printer's specimen book in this case, openly promoted wares and services on their covers. The 1856 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass offers an early example of an author's blurb, with Emerson's words to Whitman, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," stamped on the spine.

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