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Rare Book School at the University of Virginia

B-90. Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1830-1910

Sue Allen

The perception of the importance of c19 books in library stack and other collections has risen dramatically in recent years, and a variety of steps is being taken to preserve them. The cover provided by the publisher is the prime compelling physical aspect of these books. This course is aimed at those working with or interested in c19 book covers. Emphasis is on American book covers with comparisons to English and continental styles. Topics include: the materials (often beautiful), technology, evolving styles of ornamentation, the network of practitioners, the description of bindings, preservation, ongoing research, and developing opportunities in the field.

The c19 book cover as we look at it is a complex product of manufacture. It is often difficult to tell what has been done (was the cloth grained or stamped? how exactly was the gold put on?). In today's climate of heightened appreciation of these covers, it is important to understand how they were put together, to distinguish those that are more rare or more unusual, and to recognize which are typical of their time.

In laboratory sessions, this course examines the processes of graining, stamping, and embossing so that they are clearly understood. The sequence of bookcloths provided by the manufacturer, their variety of colors and textures, the endpapers, the striped endbands, all the materials the binder brought to the book, are studied in detail, as are – decade by decade – the technologies and styles that changed the appearance of the covers. Special emphasis is given to the identification of "signed" bindings: when they occur and how to look for them. Background case histories are given of practitioners in the field: binder, engraver, publisher, and (at the turn of the century) the artist-designer. The course will make extensive use of Rare Book School's collection of c19 and early c20 binding examples.

Course Resources

  • Preliminary Reading List
  • Evaluations for this course:

Course History


Sue Allen has taught this RBS course many times since 1984.