Working in a rare book gallery, it’s crucial to be conversant on the different types of binding materials and styles one may come across. I expect a nice, ugly full sheep binding for a late 18th century American work, while I expect a smooth, graceful tree calf binding for a late 18th century English work. I know a book from 1840s-1850s America by its plain brown cloth binding, and an 1890s Kelmscott by its full limp vellum with silk ties. But we all have our favorites, don’t we? (Or is that just me?) Here are mine:
Named after the press at Cambridge, where this style was commonly used in the late 17th and early 18th century, this binding style features dyed calf paneling in a solid, comfortingly predictable pattern. The center rectangle is generally the darkest, contrasting with the rectangle wrapped around it. I find beauty in its simple design.
Tree calf is a calfskin treated with stains that are then swirled across the board in the shape of the branches of a tree, stemming from a common trunk. I like the mixture of smooth and speckled in this style. Most popular in the late 18th century, this style always has an upscale, rich feeling to it.
Initially dust jackets were pieces of scrap paper meant to cover the book while shipping to protect it from damage. Over the years this paper evolved: first, the title appeared on the book to help distinguish it among all the other paper-covered books; second, advertisements popped up, because why waste all that space? And finally the elaborate pictures and colors we see today developed. Though they’re technically not a binding, I love the early jackets with the ugly brown paper and simple title stamped on the front.
The late 19th century saw the rise of color and gilt (gold) stamping on the front boards of a book as a marketing tool (before dust jackets took over this function). Some publishers took this to a new level in baroque styles and unusual designs. I rather see these as the precursors to pulp novels, with their over-the-top (but awesome) pictorial designs.
One of the first things you learn about vellum (a type of treated calfskin) is that it doesn’t age well. It bows. It stains. It dries and cracks. But, dear friends, a specimen of vellum that has somehow survived the ages without these flaws—usually through the mercy of a prescient collector—is a sight to behold. The binding almost glows.
I’ve left out plenty of the greats, I admit: the Scottish Wheel bindings, Spanish Calf, Fanfare, Grolier…but there are always more posts. Any binding questions? Throw them my way.