Bill Minter on Cobden-Sanderson’s Bindings and the Taste of Leather. Additional Comments by Marianne Tidcombe

Bill Minter sent me some recollections about Cobden-Sanderson’s bindings, which raise several interesting questions.  Are bookbinders and book conservators—especially those in private practice—skewed in their appraisal of bindings since they generally deal with books that need to be fixed?  Could Cobden-Sanderson actually taste the quality of leather? Does Bill have a second wind since he took a straight job with a regular paycheck?

Before accepting the newly created position of Senior Book Conservator at The Pennsylvania State University Libraries (aka: Penn State), Bill was in private practice. While some may know of him as the developer of the ultrasonic welder for polyester film encapsulation, he has also dabbled with other ideas in book conservation. His email is: wdm14<at>psu<dot>edu

Bill is far too modest in this brief bio. Some of his “other ideas” include intact washing of water damaged books, a velcro based tying-up press, a video of how to maintain and adjust a board shear, the use of aluminum to lighten and make more rigid oversize drop spine boxes, and tips on how to quickly flatten rolled documents for digitizing. Most recently he has attempted to quantify some of the properties of teflon and bone folders. His poster should be in the poster area of the AIC website soon.




Bill writes (1):

I recently saw your blogpost about Cobden_Sanderson.

You wrote:  “…but his bindings are really beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to see many of them and to work on a couple of them as well. They are quite refreshing from much of the trade work of the day. Unfortunately, many of the materials he used are often poor quality. The books I’ve been able to see the structure of have common late nineteenth century structural weaknesses: very thin slips, tissue thin leather jointed endsheets, and overly pared covering leather. Ironically…”

I would suggest that when you are in Chicago the next time that you try to see his bindings at the various libraries.

Many years ago, Marianne Tidcombe was to speak to The Caxton Club. She arrived days early to see C-S’s bindings, as well as research her next book on woman binders. I insisted that she stay with my family, so that I could be her chauffeur.

When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, I told her about my 3-volume set of signed C-S bindings in brown leather and blind tooled. After much discussion, she had me (almost) convinced that my books were not C-S, because “he never bound in brown leather”.  Upon going to my shop, indeed they were C-S. Until then, she had only seen rubbings of that particular binding.

(Teaser — the boards were detached as you might assume, but read on.)

Well, for two days we went to numerous libraries and, as I recall, every C-S binding was in excellent condition with the boards intact! AND, as I recall, there were no ‘brown’ leather bindings; most were either red, blue, green or other. After seeing maybe a dozen or more (20?) books, I asked the question, “you said that he did not bind in brown leather”. She explained that C-S knew that brown was not a good leather, for three specific reasons:  1) from working with the leather, 2) XXX?? (I do not recall the reason), and 3) (the best part) — that he could TASTE that the leather was TOO ACIDIC.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes:, “What I said in 1992 was not that C-S did not use brown leather for binding, but that he rarely used dyed pigskin – brown or any other colour – because it was acidic.  He had an instinct for judging leather, and could tell by handling, smelling, and (yes) tasting, if it was acid.  He chose goatskin, sealskin, and alum-tawed pigskin, all of exceptional quality, which is why his bindings have held up so remarkably well compared to many others bound in the same period. Your blind-tooled ‘Golden Legend’ bound at the Doves Bindery in about 1904(?) in brown dyed pigskin is an exception.  I suspect he risked using it in this case because it took the blind impressions rather better.”] (2)

Aside from him tasting that the leather was too acidic, how would he have known that that was a problem? At the same time: how did they test for acidity during that time — litmus paper?
ANYWAY:   To further enhance this story, the last stop was at the U Illinois — Chicago campus where there are approximately 19 bindings by Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House. Starr studied with C-S in the early 1900s. Her collection of bindings include, from my perspective:  one binding using C-S leather and tooled by C-S; one binding tooled by EGS on leather supplied by C-S, and the remainder were (shall I suggest) other leathers that have not survived as well as the C-S type —– again, from my perspective. The bindings using C-S leather were, as I recall, in much better condition than the others. At the same time, one would assume that all of the books have been held in the same, Chicago environment all these years.

I wish there were a way to determine whose leather C-S used and how that leather was tanned, especially compared to other tanners. AND, why is it that he rarely used brown leather? Perhaps a world-wide survey of the condition of all C-S bindings would be helpful? This story (information) is from the 1990s, though I did see the Starr bindings again in 2003.

Hope this raises some questions about the condition of Cobden-Sanderson bindings.

One other comment:   While you have done far more research than me, I would suggest that as conservators in private practice, we only see the failures and rarely get a chance to tour the stacks to examine a large number of bindings.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes: Re: Jeff Peachy, Cobden-Sanderson and leather, etc.  Some of what he says is of course true, but I’m afraid he generalizes, based on a couple of books bound at the Doves Bindery, which is rather unfair.  C-S had only a short period of training (with a trade binder), and his forwarder at the Doves Bindery was a tradesman.  However, C-S was a trailblazer in advocating sound methods and materials, and passed his ideas on to Douglas Cockerell, who in turn promoted conservation binding.  C-S had to find solutions to problems himself, and work out better methods as he went along.  See, for example, the structurally sound Kelmscott Chaucers he bound at the Doves Bindery, and the concertina sewing he devised for Doves Press books printed on vellum.”] (3)




Peachey responds: First, let me acknowledge I am basing my original observations on a handful of bindings brought to me for conservation work, so this may well be a self-selecting sample.  Secondly, Marianne Tidcombe, who is the world’s foremost expert on Cobden-Sanderson, and I am honored to have her comment here. She has written books on the The Doves Bindery, Cobden-Sanderson, and knows his bindings better than anyone. So in terms of the relative durability of his bindings to the general trade work of the day, I stand corrected. And I should have made it clear that I was only considering the books I have worked on, which were his tight-back tanned leather bindings.

However, another aspect to consider is the use or abuse that a book may have during its life. A high end signed Cobden-Sanderson binding likely was expensive, collected, used less, and therefore preserved better? Isn’t this also a self-selecting sample? And I would bet good money that any late nineteenth century tight-back tanned leather bindings (Cobden-Sanderson’s included) will not prove to be as durable as many other earlier bindings — both materially and structurally — though would like to learn what specifically Cobden-Sanderson did differently.

Are turn of the 20th century tight-back tanned leather bindings due a reappraisal?



  1. Email to Jeff Peachey from Bill Minter, 18 June 2016, 12:57 PM.
  2. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcombe, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.
  3. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcomve, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.

5 Replies to “Bill Minter on Cobden-Sanderson’s Bindings and the Taste of Leather. Additional Comments by Marianne Tidcombe”

  1. Very interesting conversations, thank you! With regard to Kelmscott works, what about those bound in the trade binding (i.e., sewn over tapes with a groove in the joint, case-bound, and covered with cloth spines and blue paper sides)? Is it known if TJCS have a role in designing those? I have only seen a handful of these (not just the Chaucer but others as well) and boards were detached and spines lost more often than not. As you say in the post, it’s likely that one’s viewpoint is skewed by a small self-selected sample, but it seems to me that, over time, these case bindings are not so sound, particularly for larger volumes. Not sure that there’s anything particularly deep here beyond the fact that larger case bindings can break with use, just thought I’d share.

  2. I did see a Chaucer at Boston Public Library, which was rebound. But the original binding was as you described, and in pretty rough shape.

  3. Regarding EK’s comment: The cloth-and-paper Kelmscott bindings were perfectly normal temporary casings of a sort that was widespread earlier in the 19th century. The notion of Sanderson, or anyone, “designing” these misses the point that they were never meant to be permanent bindings, were commonplace, if oldfashioned, production fare, and were meant to come apart easily without causing damage to the text block. Sanderson would have had nothing to do with them; if I remember correctly, the only Kelmscott edition work done by him or by Doves was the white pigskin copies of the Chaucer, which had tooling designed by Morris and were mostly bound by Douglas Cockerell as an apprentice. Now, there’s a learning experience few of us share—making your student mistakes binding seventy copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer.

    The Kelmscott edition bindings in vellum were stiff-board and quite different in detail from the later Arts-and-Crafts style vellum bindings; the Kelmscott’s vellum bindings were done by, if my memory serves me, Leighton, who I think may have Morris’s main edition binder (but I am not sure of this; Morris used De Coverly for his own collection). Morris had an established admiration for Continental vellum bindings. Many years ago I looked into the question of priority, and if I remember correctly the recorded dates show beyond doubt that Cobden-Sanderson’s first experiments with vellum occurred only after Kelmscott books had been bound in vellum by Leighton. It does seem to be Sanderson who was responsible for the practice of sewing the books on the same silk tapes used for fore-edge ties, and for the very hard-creased and right-angled nature of Arts and Crafts limp vellum. Sanderson never really understood vellum, for all that Doves used it so much; and the limp vellum bindings done by Doves proved notoriously fragile, giving many 20th century bibliophiles a strong dislike for the material. It is illuminating to compare Doves limp vellum with Chris Clarkson’s list of details that distinguish good from bad limp vellum.

    Sanderson was a genius at design, and half a superb finisher; his brilliant, solid gold and his design choices allowed him to hide his seriously deficient tool placement and his inability to correct mistakes. However, he was not a uniformly wise forwarder, and while some of his choices in forwarding proved good (the rejuvenation of the tight back, for instance) others were complete disasters (most notably the protruding headcaps on his later own-hands and on Doves bindings, and also the use of silk for sewing books). More than anything, he was incredibly conceited and skilled at hype, and it is essential not to judge him at his valuation of himself.

  4. I’ve probably handled several dozen Doves bindings over the years; on the other hand it is thirty years since I was in the same room with more than one or two own-hands bindings at once, and I doubt if I have touched more than one or two own-hands bindings. I’ve never worked on a Doves binding. Drawing the line between Doves and own-hands bindings is essential, since some of Sanderson’s trumpeted preferences in forwarding were probably due to his sometimes deficient technique; and the splendid craftsmanship of the Doves Bindery can make one forget that Sanderson’s own craftsmanship was not always first-rate. His leather was thick by the standards of his own day, and his joints thicker than usual, though both were thin by post-WWII standards. This was possibly due to deficient skill in paring, but it was a good result. Ironically, currently available leather is now no thicker than Sanderson’s, and I think for the same reason: many current binders want thin leather because it is easy to work with and they lack the skill, understanding, or commitment to use thicker leather. Most of the Doves bindings I have handled were in splendid condition, and damage (when present) was confined to the spine exposed to light and pollution. However, bindings by other turn-of-the-century binders of comparable aspirations (Otto Zahn, for instance, or any of the great West End firms) were in comparably good condition. It seems to me that even before the Society of Arts investigations of the early twentieth century, the very best leather was good, and you just had to be willing to lay out the cash for the best.

    The big difference between Doves and the contemporary trade is in the spine: Doves bindings are very lightly lined, so they have a certain amount of give, and the opening of the book is partly from the flexing of the spine. Contemporary fine bindings from the high-end trade binders usually have absolutely rigid spines, whether they are tight or hollow, and all the strain of opening is thrown onto the leather of the joints. In Doves bindings this would be due to Sanderson’s instructions to Charles Wilkinson, his forwarder. In the own-hands bindings I suspect that the distinctive Sanderson spine developed because he couldn’t back a book skillfully (resulting in an almost flat back, emphasized by the unwise use of silk for sewing) and he couldn’t pare well (resulting in thicker leather over the spine and joints). Sanderson’s preference for a tight back was probably a simplistic response to poorly-understood Medieval binding technique, with the Arts and Crafts movement prejudice that anything medieval was better than anything modern. A generation or two after Sanderson, the best binders realized that some papers and formats demand a working hollow back, just as others demand a tight back. But whatever the ill sources for Sanderson’ innovations, some of them proved a step in the right direction.

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