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Victorian Bookbinding

Prior to 1820, all books were bound by hand in the traditional manner: each printed gathering was sewn to cords, the cords were threaded through the front and back boards, and the cover (usually leather or leather and marbled paper) was wrapped around, being adhered to the spine and the boards. This all changed when an enterprising young publisher, William Pickering, got the idea of using coated cloth for his miniature Diamond Classics series.

Early cloth bindings published by Pickering
More important, however, was the idea of creating a separate "case" of boards, spine, and cloth, which was then affixed to the textblock as the binding. Separating the binding in this way led to a distinct industry that took full advantage of the enormous inventive surge attendant upon the Industrial Revolution. It was not, however, until the end of the Nineteenth Century that all aspects of bookbinding became mechanized.


1823 Rolling cloth press
1832 Arming or "blocking" press for blind and gilt decoration
1840 Large embossing press
1881 Sewing machine
1890 Folding machine
1892 Rounding and backing machine
1900 Gathering machine
1903 Casing-in machine

Example of an embossed and painted cover with artistic letteringVictorian sensibilities were formed in large part by the belief in the expansion of empire, the production of goods, and the machines that could bring these about. This belief was publicly embodied in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the epitome of the ideal that what could be done should be done. This ideal is perhaps nowhere more succinctly revealed than in the art of bookbinding. As machines were invented that could stamp in ink, gold, and colors; that could deeply emboss both leather and cloth; that could "paint" cloth; and that could reproduce "artistic lettering," the effect was cumulative: the more of these techniques a book cover displayed, the stronger its appeal to the book-buying public. Thus many book covers from the 1880s are deeply embossed cloth, with stamping in ink, gold, and colors, and with lettering of fanciful shapes. Painted pictorial covers most often also had lettering designed to match, such as the title in letters formed from the smoke of a fire or the stems of vines. Beautifully printed chromolithographs were also much in evidence from the 1880s, either as paper covers or as paper paste-ons.

Most of the impetus behind this development in design was commercial. The growth of theA "penny dreadful" from the Diamond Dick Jr. series publishing industry after the 1850s was phenomenal. The rise in education and the availability of leisure time brought about an enormous thirst for reading material among the middle classes, and the competition to meet this demand caused publishers to utilize as many marketing techniques as possible. Colorful and expressive covers enticed young and old readers alike; sensationalistic engravings of crimes and heroes lured those of lower reading habits; and recognizable series were offered for the library at home or away.

An essential part of this growth was periodical publication, particularly magazines, which were instrumental in bringing literature, education, and entertainment to all levels of the reading public. Early magazine covers were simple printed paper, generally decorated with typography and common The Yellow Bookprinter’s designs. With the popularity of wood engraving, however, pictorial covers became much more frequent, often depicting scenes from the stories within but just as often generalized scenes that would appeal to readers. Later in the century black printing on cloth would used to great effect for the covers of such distinguished journals as The Strand and The Yellow Book. In the 1830s, however, several printers developed methods of printing in color from wood, and this technique was used extensively for the covers of children’s books and magazines. The foremost printer of this technique was Edmund Evans, and his publications set the "look" of children’s books for many years to come. The works of Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and Beatrix Potter were all printed by Evans.

But there were also experiments in bookbinding that were more purely "artistic" in their nature, where the binder was, as we would say today, "pushing the envelope" of his craft. Two stunning examples of this impetus were papier mâché bindings developed by H. Noel Humphreys and vellucent binding developed by Cedric Chivers of Bath, England. Both, in fact, harkened back to older binding styles: the former to medieval carved wooden bindings, the latter to eighteenth-century painted vellum bindings.

Christina Rossetti's The Prince's Progress designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Just as Victorian bookbindings reflect the technical innovations of the age, they also reflect artistic styles and periods. Bindings of the 1870s and 1880s, for example, mirror the "high Victorian" love of ornamentation, color, gilt, clutter, and sentimentality. The Arts and Crafts movement, whose aesthetic ideals of the book are perhaps best represented by the work of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, rebelled against this style and resurrected the plain, unadorned limp vellum cover for many of its publications. Bindings of the 1890s and the following decade reflect the Art Nouveau movement, whose aesthetic emphasized the fluid, undulating, and curved lines and contours of organic forms, such as leaves and vines. Several important artists reflect aesthetic ideals of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements: Laurence Houseman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Aubrey Beardsley.

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On exhibit through September 30, 2000, Rare Book Room, fourth floor, University of North Texas Libraries,
Weekdays 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.

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Exhibit by Kenneth Lavender. Web design by Gwen Smith. 

This page was last modified on Thursday, July 08, 2004.

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