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[Fwd: Before Dust Jackets, in Book Binding's Gilded Age]

January 18, 1998

Before Dust Jackets, in Book Binding's Gilded Age


>From the invention of the printing press in the 15th century to the
beginning of the industrial age, the bound book as we know it did not
exist. Instead, books were bought from publishers in folded, printed
sheets, wrapped in paper. The buyer -- a reader or a bookseller -- would
then order bindings for the texts from a bookbinder.

The results, in gold-tooled leather, lined the shelves of gentlemen's

 Eager to reach a growing and literate middle class, publishers began
mass-producing their own bindings in cloth in the early 1800's. But not
until 1832, when "publishers' bindings" began to be decorated in gold, did
the public fully accept them. The advent of the heated machine press had
made it possible to block print, or stamp, bindings in gold leaf before
they were bound to texts. Splendidly ornamental, the books mimicked the
look of gold-tooled leather, thereby carrying associations of cultivation
and privilege.

 "Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gold-Stamped Publishers' Bindings of the
19th Century," an exhibit of 200 books that will be on display through Feb.
27 at Columbia University's Butler Library, examines the progress and
creative range of gold-stamped bindings from 1830 to 1890, the year black
and color stamping, color lithography and the dust jacket finally took
over. What began as imitation of tradition quickly became new and
evocative. Gold stamps started to illustrate the subjects of books, and the
art of the commercial cover was born.

 "When the publishing industry consolidated, the publisher moved into the
limelight and showed the book how he thought it would sell and fit into the
market," said Sue Allen, an instructor in the Rare Book School at the
University of Virginia.

 The show's curators, Claudia Funke and Jane Siegel, culled English and
American books from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia --
including fiction, children's fairy tales, science, travel and economics --
to show how gilded graphics expressed the styles, preoccupations and
excesses of the age. They range from funky folk-art illustrations of the
Wild West to elegant Art Nouveau bindings of the 1890's, for which
publishers enlisted leading illustrators and graphic artists like Will
Bradley. (A binding designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for his "Ballads and
Sonnets" appears in the show.)

>From 1830 to 1890, a cover stamped in gold leaf often gave an ornate idea
of what was inside a text.


 Ms. Funke says books were pulled from the stacks because of the visual
possibilities suggested by their titles. ("The Headless Horseman," with the
anatomically impaired protagonist on the cover, seems laughably literal
today.) The show is organized according to the recurrent motifs of the gold
stamps. These include revival and neo-classical imagery, coats of arms and,
most entertaining, pictorials known as vignettes in which artists were free
to interpret the subject matter of texts.

 At first small and unassuming in the center of the front cover, vignettes
expanded to fill the cover and spine with dramatic tableaux. They are most
histrionic when depicting romance and adventure travel, abetted by
stylized, sometimes spooky typography. The letters of the title "Arctic
Expedition" drip icicles, and a chronicle of David Livingstone's last days
in Africa shows him being carried on the shoulders of natives, themselves
neck-deep in a swamp.

An early and infamous promotional blurb appears on an 1856 edition of Walt
Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ralph Waldo Emerson's words of endorsement, "I
greet you at the beginning of a great career," were used without his
consent, as legend has it, and stamped on the book's spine.

 Dainty volumes known as gift books, illustrated anthologies of popular
poetry, were a commercial hit because their gilded covers resembled gift

 Playfully ornamental, gold-stamped bindings attract collectors on the
basis of a book's appearance, not necessarily its content. Dealers like
Thomas G. Boss of Fine Book in Boston who specialize in the book as a
graphic object have acquired most of the gold-stamped books that were
available as recently as 10 years ago in secondhand book shops. But the
market, Mr. Boss notes, is still unexplored.

 "What has kept the area from being more collected, and expensive, is that
a lot of the work was done completely anonymously," he said. "The mention
of the designer on the outer covering of the book was pretty unusual. It
was done mainly for the bigger names." (Works by the American artists Sarah
Whitman and Walter Crane are on view at Columbia.)

 While one may pay $750 for a lesser first edition by a popular author, a
gilded 19th-century book with an obscure text can sell for as little as
$25. Prices rise to $150 for signed works -- those rare books in which the
initials of the designers, like the WB of the prolific Bradley, are on the
covers. Though they remain plentiful, many gold-stamped bindings have
fallen apart.

 By 1928, the book collector A. Edward Newton rued the passing of the "lost
art" of gold-stamped bindings. The dust jacket had won out because it was
more economical and could be read more quickly. With gold-stamped covers,
it takes a moment to get the full picture, and consumers couldn't wait.

<http://www.nytimes.com/info/help/copyright.html>Copyright 1998 The New
York Times Company

>>     In schoen gebunden Buechern blaettert man gern.     <<

Peter D. Verheyen   <wk> 315.443.9937      <fax> 315.443.9510
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