In 2008 there were two major exhibitions of 19th century publishers’ bindings; The Well Dressed Book at the University of Maryland, and The Proper Decoration of Book Covers: The Life and Work of Alice C. Morse at the Grolier club in NYC. One day symposiums accompanied both, and the speakers rallied around the cause of celebrating the presumably unknown, or at least undervalued work of 19th century publishers’ binding designers, often only identified by microscopic initials hidden within the stamping on the front cover.
Last weekend, I purchased and read Brander Matthews’ book, Bookbindings Old and New, (Strand Bookstore, ex-library copy, $20!) published in 1895, expecting to find the typical remarks of a pedantic 19th century bibliophile, but instead found an opinionated, yet breezily written assessment of mainly French bookbinders from the 16th through the 18th centuries, a chapter on publishers’ bindings and a short history of the Grolier Club. I found Matthews to be passionate about defending the high quality of work by many book designers of the day– including Margaret N. Armstrong, Mrs. Henry Whitman, Stanford White, Harold B. Sherwin, Hugh Thomson, Edwin A. Abbey, D.S. Maccoll, and more. “The beauty of the modern book is not that of the book of yore” (172), he writes, “Just how excellent some modern commercial bindings are, scarcely any of us have taken time to discover; for we are prone to overlook not a few of the best expressions of contemporary art, natural outgrowths of modern conditions, in our persistent seeking for some great manifestation which we fail to find. ” (174) He later continues, “It is a fact that commercial bookbinding , often ignorantly looked down on, is now at a most interesting stage of its history; and it seems to me very worth while to consider some of its recent successes.” (175)
He even is an early advocate for preservation of paper wrappers, “One word of warning, and I have done: never destroy the paper cover of a book, even of the least important pamphlet. The integument is an integral part of the book…” (283) The page opposite this quote is an illustration of the Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which today is worth much, much more if in original wrappers. He obviously recognizes and values the unique physical character of books, and quotes Hawthorne’s admonishment to collectors who rebind their publishers’ cloth books in leather, those who “strip off the real skin of a book to put it into fine clothes.” (If anyone knows where this quote appears in Hawthorne’s Oeuvre, please let me know, a citation is not included in Matthew’s book)
But at the same time, he complains about the state of hand bookbinding, and is particularly disparaging of the use of the roll in tooling. “The use of the roll, repeating the same motive indefinitely as it is rolled over the leather, is indefensible; it is the negation of art; it destroys the free play of hand which is the very essence of handicraft.” (69) For Matthews, Cobden-Sanderson is the height of modern bookbinding genius–there are 8 large plates of his bindings– and is critical of the “artistic sterility” of Zaehnsdorf. “The most original figure among English binders of this century–in fact, the only original figure since Roger Payne–is Mr. Cobden-Sanderson.” (129) “Believing in handicraft as the salvation of humanity, and that a man should labor with his hands, he abandoned the bar, and studied the trade of the binder.” (132)
He ends up adopting a somewhat black and white position: all hand bookbinding should be done by hand, preferably both the forwarding and the finishing by the same man, but commercial binding is the execution of of design. “So a book-cover stamped by steam may be a thing of beauty if it is designed by Mrs. Whitman or by Mr. Stanford White.” (175) He ends his essay by claiming the Americans superior to the English in modern book design, and concludes that books are “…one of the most important forms of houshold art–of decorative art. Properly understood, and intelligently practiced, it is capable of educating the taste even of the thoughtless, and giving keen enjoyment to those love books for their own sake.”(228)
I am a bit reluctant to include this link to his book online, since it seems somewhat disrespectful to his wonderful phrase “the integument is an integral part of the book.”
Matthews, Brander. Bookbindings Old and New: Notes of a Book Lover: With an Account of the Grolier Club of New York. New York: Macmillan, 1895.