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.

Thread Bookmark

Thread bookmark

Thomas Nuttall The Genera of North American Plants and a Catalogue of the species to the Year 1817. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author by D. Heartt, 1818.    Courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.

There are many kinds of bookmarks, and most often those that are attached to bindings are silk ribbons. This owner made bookmark, which is on a boards binding, almost crosses the line into becoming a kind of oddly knotted end band, which boards bindings never originally had. The fourteen separate threads are sewn into the spine, and were used to mark the pages of this presumably frequently consulted catalogue of plant species. It also seems to have stabilized the binding a bit at the head, where the spine on these  bindings often delaminates.


Thomas Nuttall The Genera of North American Plants and a Catalogue of the species to the Year 1817. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author by D. Heartt, 1818.    Courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.

It is also evidence against once strongly held notions that boards bindings are “temporary”. This binding not only displays considerable use (dirt, stains, flower and leaf storage) but the owner consulted it enough to warrant take the time to install this method keeping track of multiple places at one time, and used the book in the field.

Boards Bindings

Boards Binding

Nathan Drake. Literary Hours: Or Sketches, Critical, Narrative, and Poetical. The Fourth Edition, Corrected.  London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820. This board binding is covered in one sheet of paper, has a printed spine label on a tight-back spine, and substantial squares. 

John Townsend, the one and only Anonymous Bookbinder, has once again agreed to be a guest blogger.  Boards bindings (also called publishers’ board bindings, in-boards bindings, boarded bindings, paper covered board bindings, publishers’ boards, plain boards, boards bindings, in-boards publisher’s bindings, original boards, publishers’ trade bindings [1]) are particularly interesting in the way they prefigure certain aspects of publishers’ cloth case bindings.  John’s short essay, which is from a Paper and Book Intensive workshop he conducted in 2011, is a succinct introduction to this often neglected binding style, which until now has been missing from the web. John writes:

Publishers’ board bindings” refer to an inexpensive retail style of binding that emerged in England in the mid-18th century. It typically consists of a sewn textblock with untrimmed edges, thin pasteboards laced on and covered in paper. The covering was often with three pieces of paper: a plain paper pasted down tight on the spine and slightly overlapping the sides (i.e. quarter binding), with a blue or gray paper covering the remainder of the sides. There are many variations, including covering with a single colored sheet (frequently gray); boards with or without squares; spines covered with leather or vellum instead of paper; the use of a made or natural hollow, etc. Different colors of paper were used at various time, with some colors identified with particular publishers.

By the end of the 18th century, books in boards had become the most common way for books to be sold. Although often described as temporary bindings, recent scholarship has demonstrated that they are more likely intended to help meet the growing demand for books at a cost the broader public could afford. As such, it is unlikely they were issued by publishers with the expectation that buyers would necessarily have them rebound at a later time. It was common for publishers to issue books in boards at the time they issued the same books in sheep or calf leather for those interested and willing to pay more.

The style and its variation had a very long life in the marketplace. After the introduction of bookcloth in the mid-1820s, cloth rather than paper spines was used for popular titles, especially novels. After mechanization took over many aspects of book production, the boards style continued to appear on certain types of publications, such as proceeding of scholarly societies, print versions of important library catalogs, and other bibliographic works. Many examples can be found well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Cowie’s Bookbinder’s Manual (1828 and subsequent editions) may be the first written account of the process for board bindings. But the key structural features of board bindings are easily observed in the many surviving examples and it is clear that the style changed little between its introduction and Cowie’s description. Somewhat later (1835), Arnett’s Bibliopegia describes it as “the commonest way of doing up books in this country.”

Despite its reputation as “temporary,” many thousands of board bindings still exist. Given their age and the fact that they were often not regarded as important, these are often in reasonably good condition. Deterioration is typically due as much to poor storage and degraded materials as to structural deficiencies. The structure is worth studying as a transition between leather binding and case binding. Many of its features—sewing on cords, laced on boards, tight back spine covering—are identical in form to traditional leather bindings, but performed with less expensive materials. (The temporary shortage of leather and its high cost in the 1760s being one reason for the development of board bindings.) By one account, the development of bookcloth by William Pickering (circa 1823) was his desire for a neater way of doing boarded bindings. Thus, cloth was developed as a substitute for board bindings, rather than a substitute for leather bindings, as is sometimes assumed.

Board bindings represent a significant development in the history of bookbinding and book selling. As a structure, they also have many possibilities to offer bookbinders, conservators and book artists who look to historical models for instruction and inspiration. As far as being merely temporary, it is worth remembering that, “All bindings are perishable, whether of wood, leather, paper or cloth. At their best, and treated well, books in boards offered a binding as lasting as any other.” (Hill, p. 273)


Bennett, Stuart. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660-1800. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press/The British Library, 2004. An important work challenging and expanding the definition of publishers’ bindings. Section V.1 of chapter three (p. 80-85) deals with board bindings.

Cowie, George. Cowie’s Bookbinder’s Manual. London: W. Strange, 1853. Acessed online 19 Apr 2011 at

Hannett [Arnett], John. Bibliopegia; or, the Art of Bookbinding in All Its Branches. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1980. (Reprint of the 1835 edition.) Part IV (p. 161-163) has a brief account “Of Boarding” and “Cloth Boarding.”

Hill, Jonathan E. “From Provisional to Permanent: Books in Boards, 1790-1840.” The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographic Society 3 (September) (1999) : 247-273. A scholarly account of various stages in the development of board bindings, challenging the early 20th century assertion that they were “mere sheet-containers.”

Pearson, David. English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800. London and New Castle, De: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2005. Chapter VI, “Cheap and Temporary Bindings,” deals with bindings in boards, p. 159 -163. Despite the chapter title, Pearson follows Hill’s view that board bindings were often very often intended to be more permanent that often assumed.


[1] “Boarding” also refers to the working of leather to make it more pliable, give it a more even consistency, and raise the grain. “Out of boards” binding refers to trimming the edges before the boards are attached, as in school-book and case binding. The term “in-boards” sometimes refers generally to a bound books, rather than a cased ones.