Skip to main content

Foss, Sam Walter (1858 – 1911), Songs of War and Peace. Boston : Lee and Shepard, publishers, 10 Milk Street, 1899 ([Boston, Mass.] : Typography by C.J. Peters & Son, Boston. Presswork by Berwick & Smith)
Foss, Sam Walter (1858 – 1911), Songs of War and Peace. Boston : Lee and Shepard, publishers, 10 Milk Street, 1899 ([Boston, Mass.] : Typography by C.J. Peters & Son, Boston. Presswork by Berwick & Smith)

Broadly defined, publishers’ bindings (also known as edition bindings) are bound books issued in quantity, identical in appearance, and brought to market at the expense of a publisher or distributor. The appearance of the publishers’ binding in the 1820s in Great Britain, and subsequently elsewhere, signaled a significant and enduring change in the way books were produced and sold.


Before the introduction of publishers’ bindings, during the period known as the hand-press era (circa 1500-1800), methods of book construction and purchase remained largely unchanged. Booksellers and printers generally sold the textual contents of books unbound, in folded sheets, in intentionally temporary packaging such as paper wrappers. Alternatively, a simple binding of vellum, parchment, or sheepskin might be had for a higher price. The cost of fine bindings during this period would customarily be borne by purchasers, who would contract separately with a bookbinder for a distinctive binding reflective of their taste and wherewithal.


But as the nineteenth century approached, extraordinary technological and cultural shifts occurred. Increased mechanization of paper manufacturing and printing processes led to an exponentially greater output of books. Additionally, population growth, larger urban concentrations, and expanding educational systems and the attendant spread of literacy, yielded a greater book-buying public. As a result, a publishing industry, distinct from the printing and bookselling trades, emerged, eager to increase profits by developing a durable, cost-effective way of packaging books.


The British innovation of the case binding provided the solution. As its name suggests, the case binding formed a “case” for the text block of a book by means of a flexible cardboard material covered in cloth, paper, or a leather substitute. In contrast to labor-intensive practices of the past, where bindings were handcrafted around the text block, the case binding could be manufactured apart from, and subsequently glued to, a text block. The benefits of mechanized prefabricated case bindings also included the ability to construct them in standard format sizes and in increasingly larger quantities, which allowed publishers to achieve economies of scale.


Book-cloth, the predominant covering for publishers’ bindings, is thought to have been developed at the impetus of the London publisher William Pickering (1796-1854), working in conjunction with the bookbinder Archibald Leighton (1784-1841). As a covering, cloth presented a number of technical problems relative to durability, uniformity of dying, and glue seepage that Leighton is credited with solving. The manufacturing of book-cloth eventually evolved into its own industry, which the British monopolized for the better part of the nineteenth century.


Initially, publishers’ cloth bindings did not find favor with the book-buying public. The modest, early bindings of the 1820s of simple, glazed textiles affixed with paper labeling lacked aesthetic appeal. With flagging sales, publishers quickly sought ways to offer more attractive bindings. Early efforts focused on manipulation of the cloth. Borrowing from the ribbon industry, book-cloth was fed through machines used to emboss ribbons, thereby giving the bindings a raised, often floral pattern. Publishers expanded the concept to include grain patterns such as rib, whorl (a moiré pattern), and morocco (intentionally mimicking leather). These enhancements led to greater acceptance among consumers.


The decoration of publishers’ bindings continued to evolve over the course of the century, leading to designs of greater complexity and sophistication. Technical innovation, such as the introduction in the 1830s of the arming press that stamped designs directly onto the case binding, and the enlarged spectrum of book-cloth colors in the 1850s made possible by the advent of aniline dyes, remained a constant factor in the evolution. Historic events, including the opening of Japan’s borders, and the devastation of the American Civil War also influenced book cover design. Additionally, the visual vocabularies of stylistic movements like the Gothic Revival, Eastlake, and Arts and Crafts found their way onto bindings.


Arguably, the greatest change in the decoration of publishers’ bindings stemmed from the reassignment of design responsibilities. From their inception in the 1820s to roughly the early 1880s binding decoration largely fell to diesinkers, able craftsmen who cut the dies used in the stamping process, but who generally possessed limited artistic capabilities. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, publishers increasingly turned to trained artists and designers, many of them women, to decorate their books. These design professionals considered the “frame” of the cover in composing their layouts, introduced flat poster-style graphics, and integrated lettering into the overall design concept, ushering in what is widely considered to be the golden age of decorated cloth bindings.


But, within a decade of reaching this artistic climax, the ubiquity of decorated publishers’ bindings began to dwindle. In the years just prior to and following World War I, illustrated dust jackets increasingly supplanted decorated cloth bindings, as publishers found it more economical to print designs on paper rather than stamping them on cloth, a practice that continues into the twenty-first century.


As an institution founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum holds on its shelves a superlative array of publishers’ bindings that comprehensively document their evolution. What follows is but a sampling.


Selected Bibliography:

Allen, Sue and Charles Gullans. Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers’ Bindings, 1840-1910. Los Angeles: UCLA, Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1994.

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Binding. Williamsburg, VA: Bookpress, 1985.

Casper, Scott E., Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, & Michael Winship. A History of the Book in America, Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Comparato, Frank E. Books for the Millions: A History of the Men Whose Methods and Machines Packaged the Printed Word. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1971.

Gaskell, Philip. “Book Production: The Machine –Press Period, 1800-1950.” In A New Introduction to Bibliography. 1995 ed., 189-310. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995.

Gullans, Charles B. and John J. Espey. “American Trade Bindings and Their Designers 1880–1915.” In Collectible Books, edited by Jean Peters, 32–67. New York: Bowker, 1979.

Krupp, Andrea. Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-50. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library; New York, NY: Bibliographical Society of America, 2008.

Leighton, Douglas. “Canvas and Bookcloth: An Essay on Beginnings.” The Library, 5th ser., 3 (June 1948): 39-49.

McLean, Ruari. Victorian publishers' book-bindings in cloth and leather. London: Gordon Fraser, 1974.

Morris, Ellen. The Art of Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1815–1915. Los Angeles: William Daley Rare Books, Ltd., [2000].

Rogers, Joseph W. “The Rise of American Edition Binding.” In Bookbinding in America: Three Essays, edited by Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, 131-185b. New York and London: R.R. Bowker Company, 1967. 

Sadlier, Michael. The Evolution of Publishers’ Binding Styles, 1770-1900. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.



Select the collections to add or remove from your search