Rare Book School: 19th Century Publisher’s Bindings

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  I was drawn to Sue Allen‘s course on 19th century publisher’s bindings because ISU Library holds a number of these bindings, which are increasingly categorized by the preservation field as “medium rare.”  As these materials disappear from collections and grow increasingly more “special,” developing specific preservation policies for treating them becomes increasingly more important.  In order to avoid losing significant bindings (for instance, by inadvertently sending them off to the commercial binder as part of general collections maintenance), I realized that I needed a much stronger knowledge base to make informed decisions.  I had hoped that Sue Allen’s course would provide me with that foundation, and I was not disappointed.

Sue and her assistant Vince proved to be gracious and knowledgeable instructors.  The amount of course material provided to participants was overwhelming, and I am still reorganizing and digesting my notes.  Sue’s passion for these bindings caught everyone up in her enthusiasm.

What makes RBS courses stand out from other similar opportunities for professional development are its collections.  During our one-week course, my classmates and I were privileged to handle literally hundreds of examples of publisher’s bindings.  This exposure to so many historically significant materials provided a priceless experience, and allowed us to internalize Sue’s lessons in a manner that would have been impossible otherwise.

When I returned to ISU, I felt as if my eyes had been opened to a new world.  As I reviewed items from the newly-donated Bob Harvey collection, which is currently being conserved in preparation for an exhibit and reception in Special Collections this fall, I felt a ping of nerdy delight when I recognized several interesting bindings that had seemed perfectly ordinary to me before RBS.

This volume, The New England Book of Fruits (1847), speaks to the design conventions of the late 1840s.  Like many book designs typical of the 1840s, it has a blind-stamped, ornamental border, a gold-stamped centerpiece, and an experimental bookcloth (in this case, imitating the texture of watered silk).  What marks this volume as late ’40s is that the center image, a cluster of golden pears, directly relates to the book’s intellectual content instead of being a generalized, stock image such as a vase of flowers or a lyre.

Injurious Insects was published in 1882 by Orange Judd, who was known for his preference for simple, modest, uncluttered book designs, in sharp contrast with the excess so typical of most 1880s book covers.  Orange Judd’s relationship with his binder was less collaborative than other publishers of the time; Judd sought to impress his aesthetic of simplicity on all the books his firm published.  In spite of its comparative spareness, the cover does still illustrate some design elements typical of the 1880s, such as the blind-stamped back cover, the black-stamped strip border at the head and tail of the front cover, and the quirky, whimsical lettering (seen here on the spine).

Finally, The Training of a Forester (1914) exemplifies the last period of book cover design before dust jackets took precedence.  The silhouetted cover was designed by George H. Hallowell (1871-1926), a painter, stained glass artist, and book cover designer (note his discreet monogram “H” at the lower center of the design).  White stamping developed in the 1890s, and was expensive and time-consuming to produce, because the same area had to be stamped 7 or 8 times to build up enough white colorant for opacity.

When our RBS course began, Sue explained that you can never truly see until someone teaches you how to look, and I thank her and Vince for teaching me how to see the treasures that were right under my nose.


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