This new mini-series of blog posts will examine British cloth bindings during the Victorian era, that is, from the 1830s until the turn of the 20th century.
We’re starting at the 1830s because this is when the technology for cloth bindings took off.
The art of covering a book in cloth was invented in the early 1820s. The first materials used were dress materials such as silk and satin, but these were unsuitable for everyday use as the glue came through easily and the lack of ‘body’ or stiffness made them difficult to work with.Archibald Leighton is generally credited with the invention, in 1825, of the cotton cloth material we know so well today, impervious to an ordinary application of glue or paste, and retaining its stiffness on being moistened by adhesive, although the publisher William Pickering was issuing cloth-bound books as early as 1821.
Experiments were devised in about 1823 to colour the cloth – for colour was much more attractive than plain calico, resulting in books clothed in blues, greens, reds, and even purples.
Cloth remained popular because it was a cheap method of binding a book (although in the 1850s prices shot up as a result of the successive Crimean War, American Civil War, and cotton famine). Technological advances meant the covers could be decorative: machinery was invented in the 1830s which could emboss the cloth, providing further ornamentation; the means of applying black, then colour, and finally silver, developed in the coming decades, adding further decoration. Cloth was here to stay. It could be used both for cheap editions, and for expensive gift books.
In the coming weeks we’ll look at various aspects of cloth bindings. We’ll consider the means of decorating the cloth, from grains and blocking, to various methods of achieving a colourful design; We’ll take a look at how titles developed, from being printed on paper labels to becoming an integral part of the cover design; and, finally, take a look at book designers and artists, and the influences which they had on book cover design.
We hope this brief introduction has whetted your appetite for the weeks to come!
Assistant Rare Books Librarian
Briony says: “A note of caution: just because a book is found with a particular binding doesn’t mean that the binding is contemporary with the text which it encloses. Publishers’ bindings may post-date the actual text by anything up to ten years (and sometimes more, Michael Sadleir citing a case of a London binder who received an order in 1924 to bind a book dated 1905 on the title page). I acknowledge that I am not an expert, and can only apologise in advance for any errors which I may make.”