October 2009


Once upon a time, published books were issued in sheets – essentially, in stacks of paper that the buyer would have bound in a way that suited their tastes and needs. These personalized bindings, usually in leather, were expensive and time consuming to produce. As literacy spread in the early 19th century, a new method of binding was required to meet the demands of a growing mass market of readers. Binders began experimenting with heavily starched cloth as a durable material for covering books. It worked! But some consumers and critics were not convinced of the aesthetics of having dress fabric in their library. The years that followed the invention of book-cloth saw rapid changes in designs and techniques applied to the material to suit changing fashions and expectations. By following publishers’ cloth bindings from 1830-1930, we can gain a sense of consumerism and the decorative arts during the century of industrialization.

The James Wilson Bright Collection was purchased by Goucher College shortly before Bright’s death in 1926. Having amassed contemporary publications throughout his life, Bright’s books serve as an excellent showcase of the development of publishers’ cloth bindings throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As the cataloging project progresses, you’ll be able to search for decoration on and treatment of the various cloth bindings in the collection.  Use the index terms found here to assist.

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Silver Stamped Binding Our Special Collections staff all agree that this is a gorgeous binding:  with its   embossed purple-brown cloth, and the colors in the dye stamp that gradually change from a reddish-bronze to gold and play delicately with the light.  The whole effect is a stunning use of hue and iridescence.

Would it surprise you to know that this is completely by accident?  What the binder originally conceived of was a clean, even gold design.  But gold is expensive, especially if one is thinking of mass producing a book.  So, what was actually stamped on this book is an alloy of 80% copper and 20% zinc — fake gold, sometimes referred to as “Dutch metal.”  It has been slowly degrading over time into the reddish, orange and bronze tones that we now see.

We’re very grateful for the binder’s economy!