Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Art of the Publishers’ Binding

The Preacher of Cedar Mountain by Ernest Thompson Seton, 1917

It used to be much harder to judge a book by its cover. Prior to the 19th century, most books were published and sold to customers as unbound sheets or in simple bindings executed specifically for the individual bookseller. By the end of the 18th century books were increasingly issued in plain paper covered boards or wrappings. These unbound sheets and plain wrappings were intended to be temporary; it was left to the customer to have the book bound. Many of the pre-19th century decorative bindings we see today were usually commissioned by either the bookseller or the customer, not the publisher. Uniform “house” bindings as we know them today did not exist.

Hunted and Harried by R.M. Ballantyne, [1910]

In 1819 William Pickering, an antiquarian bookseller who moved into publishing, began issuing his series of Diamond Classics which are usually recognized as the first publishers’ binding in cloth. The Diamond Classic series was made up of small books that were offered in uniform bindings of cloth or leather at an affordable price – an innovation which had a rapid and profound impact on the publishing industry.

An English Boy’s Life and Adventures in Uganda by C.W.Hattersley, [1923]

As one would suspect, publishers’ bindings often reflect the artistic movements and styles of the time of publication. There are bindings done in Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Eastlake style as well as gothic revival, neo-classicism, and orientalism.

The Aeroplane at Silver Fox Farm by James Otis, 1911

My personal favorites (and most of the examples seen here) are the bindings done in the “poster” style. Being designed to capture the attention of potential customers passing by, posters made use of flat, bold, simplified designs printed with limited colors. Publishers used posters as a way to advertise newspapers and magazines. Eventually, the publishers noticed the disparity between the popularity of the posters with the product being advertised. It quickly became apparent that customers simply wanted the posters and were not interested in buying the product shown. Book publishers quickly adapted the bold poster style for book covers, hoping the eye-catching designs would increase book sales.

By England’s Aid by G.A. Henty, [1891]

The cover designs were often figurative or narrative, usually showing an aspect of the book’s theme. As with traditional posters, the font used for the book’s title and/or author was carefully considered and integrated into the overall design. The designs were printed directly onto the book cloth in a lithographic process similar to Japanesse woodblock printing. Due to the limited number of colors used in the printing process, the color of the book cloth itself was often integrated into the design as well.

Coupon Bonds by J.T Trowbridge, [1912]

These images are just a tiny sampling of the many 19th and early 20th century publishers’ bindings held in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections.

If you are interested in more information on the different artistic styles of publishers’ bindings, a great online resource can be found here.

Ashley Jones
Preservation Librarian