Wandering the Stacks: Beautiful Book Bindings

Reflections on the Library Collection by Jane Carlin, Collins Library Director.

Web site design by Kyle Reinke.

This past summer I took a break from my computer screen and took time to peruse the stacks of Collins Library.  I love browsing because you never know what you will discover.  This serendipitous discovery of books is one of the things I love most about libraries.  As a student I remember that when looking for a specific book I often ended up looking at books on related topics and well, one thing led to another, and in the end I had a completely new idea.  Of course, we still search like this on the Internet.  Google allows us to move from one idea to the next.  Databases connect data and ideas in new ways, thus making the process of discovery equally fulfilling.  Yet, there is something wonderful about the tactile qualities of the book.  I was also inspired by Richard Minsky’s  award winning book:  The Art of American Book Covers 1875 - 1930.  This book documents the period of American book binding at the turn of the twentieth century when book design was considered a true art form.  Book covers were designed to entice the reader, but also to be simply beautiful and serve as objects of enjoyment.  Many book binders used intricate gold leaf patterns to adorn book covers. Browsing through Minsky’s book gave me the idea to look for these books in our stacks.  Our shelves are full of these wonderful decorative bindings and this online exhibit shares some of those covers.

Artists were no doubt influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement and the rise of private presses. During the early part of the twentieth century there was a renaissance in book design.  Artists, typographers, printers and illustrators were in high demand and decorative book covers were in demand. Publishers hired increasing numbers of professional artists to design their covers, many of them women, to decorate the publications.

So, take a walk in the stacks and find your own examples of decorative book binding and let us know!   We will scan them and add them to our online collection.  Please email: libref@pugetsound.edu

Some things to look for:

  • Boards:  This term refers to the front and back covers of a book, usually wrapped in cloth of leather.
  • Calf:  This is the type of smooth leather commonly only used in book binding. It can be treated with chemicals to produce a variety of decorative effect.  Calf is often embellished with gold tooling.
  • Tooling:  Designs that are impressed into the leather binding of a book using a variety of small decorative tools are called tooling. Bookbinders used a variety of designs, often floral designs to decorate covers. 
  • Blind Tooling:  The design is impressed with no additional color or material.
  • Gold Tooling:  The design is impressed with gold leaf.
  • Marbled Paper:  Many of the books used marbled paper to decorate covers as well as the inside of the cover.  Marbled paper is made when dyes are floated on top of a liquid surface and then combed or swirled into a decorative pattern.  A sheet of blank paper is then laid down on the liquid, where it absorbs the design.
  • Decorative Cloth:  As an alternative to leather, highly decorative cloth was used to bind books and artists often employed blind or god tooling.

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