Coloured cloth bindings

Highlights from the Monash University Rare Books Collection

Exhibition opening: An opening address was give by Alan Dilnot, School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies, Faculty of Arts, Monash University
Curator: Richard Overrell, Rare Books Librarian
When: 14 October 2004 - 28 February 2005 
Where: Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Claytong campus

The publishers of the nineteenth century produced some very beautiful books. At the beginning of the century books were still being produced in much the same way as they had been since Caxton's time. A bookseller would purchase the copy for a book and arrange for it to be printed. He would sell it through his shop either in sheets or bound in paper boards or in a simple leather binding. The purchaser would then have the sheets or the book bound in leather in a style to match the other books in his library.

The early decades of the century saw great changes in the printing and book trades. Iron presses replaced wooden and the role of the publisher came to the fore. With the rise in literacy there was a greater demand for reading matter. Books could be produced more quickly with the new presses but there was a bottle-neck at the bindery. By the 1820s books were being cased in cloth rather than fully bound in leather.

At first cloth bindings presented problems. It was difficult to obtain a cloth which would be durable and would take the glues necessary to fix it to the boards without becoming marked and discoloured. There was also a problem in choosing a suitable cloth to take the inks.

Books in the 1820s tended to appear with a paper label pasted onto the spine or front cover, but by the 1830s a suitable variety of cloth was found and the title could be printed on the spine. Metal blocks, formerly used to stamp designs on leather, began to be used on the cloth bindings. We see from the late 1820s books with designs stamped in blind or ink, or more impressively in gilt.

These began as stylistic devices, rules, stock ornaments etc., but the publishers could see the importance of producing books which were attractive to the public, and figurative designs began to appear on the cover, and especially on the spine, as that was the part of the book displayed on the shelf.

Each decade of the century saw the rise of fashion in lettering and design. There were examples of their adaptation of designs already familiar to book buyers from those used on leather bindings; so we see the Grolier strap-work (e.g. Humphries, item 42)

We also see designs derived from Persian models (e.g. item 91), floral designs (e.g. the romance novels, items 107-109) and, by the end of the century, art nouveau was the latest style to be appropriated (e.g. items 13, 104)

Dust-wrappers had made an appearance in the mid-Victorian period (Item 17) and gradually replaced the need for ornaments or illustrations on the cloth. The First World War saw the end of coloured cloth as the general rule in book production, although some books, particularly children's books, continued to be produced in the style into the 1930s, surviving longer in the US than in England.

There is a strong interest in the "history of the book" at Monash University. We have a Centre for the Book attached to the English Department. The Rare Book Collection has ample resources for tracing the development of nineteenth-century cloth bindings decade by decade. However, I have chosen to arrange the material on display partly by the designs themselves and partly by the type of book. So we have in the main case striking examples of the nineteenth century book-designer's art. These are mostly English but there is some Continental material and some nineteenth-century Australian productions (e.g. items 1 and 2)

The other cases contain books grouped by subject: scientific, domestic, literature, travel etc. There is also a grouping of nineteenth-century bound volumes of magazines, and, in the corridor cases, examples of children's books from the period.

The idea with these exhibitions is to give people the opportunity to see books from the collection. This exhibition presents a slice of our holdings, of books chosen for their covers.

Richard Overell,
Rare Books Librarian.