Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gold-Stamped Publishers' Bindings of the 19th Century

Judging a Book by Its Cover:  Gold-Stamped Publishers' Bindings of the 19th Century
An exhibit held Nov. 14, 1997 - Feb. 27, 1998 in Kempner Gallery

Curators: Claudia Funke and Jane Rodgers Siegel

Introduction to the Exhibit

Bookbinding was one of the last of the bookmaking processes to be mechanized. Since the invention of printing by movable type in the fifteenth century, books had been issued in folded-and-gathered printed sheets—often in paper wrappers—which the buyer then had bound to order. In the early nineteenth century, the development of case binding, a technique conducive to mass production, at last made possible the manufacture of books with uniform edition bindings.

The advent of gold-stamped decoration, circa 1832, was the most important factor in the acceptance of publishers' bindings. Gold stamping brought to the mass-produced book some of the prestige associated with gold-tooled leather bindings of the pre-industrial era. In fact, stamping often imitated the decorative styles and motifs of the hand-finished book. However, gold stamping also developed its own styles and imagery that reflected the period' s taste and culture.

Gold stamping was a favored means of decoration throughout the nineteenth century, but beginning in the last decades, black and color stamping and color lithograph covers gained increasing popularity at its expense. The 1890s did, however, witness a last blaze of glory for the gold-stamped binding, before the twentieth-century triumph of the dust jacket sounded its death knell.

The books in this exhibition are exclusively English and American. Gold-stamped publishers bindings were indeed produced throughout continental Europe, but countries such as France and Italy clung to the tradition of paper covered texts, to be bound on commission well into the twentieth century. The bindings on display have been selected to be representative of the genre and to entertain the discerning viewer. It is also hoped that certain examples will demonstrate the splendid excesses that were possible with gold stamping

Image of Arming PressBy the early nineteenth century, binding had become something of a bottleneck in the mass production of books. Papermaking and printing had been mechanized in response to the ever-larger literate public's demand for cheaper printed matter, but books continued to be bound by hand.

This situation resulted in the development of case binding, in which book covers are prefabricated with their covering as a case, then attached to the text block by glue. This allowed for mass production in a way not possible when books were bound in the traditional way, the boards attached to the text block by cords, and then covered with leather or paper and decorated individually.

Gold stamped decoration led to the acceptance of cloth bindings and publishers bindings in general. The advance of gold stamping was made possible by the arming press, similar to other presses, except that it included a heating element, and the block to be printed was pressed face down into the binding.

The cloth was glued to the boards, glair—an adhesive mixture of eggwhite and vinegar—applied, the gold leaf laid on, and the cover stamped in the press. Meanwhile, the gatherings of the book were sewn together (sewing was mechanized later in the century). Finally, the cover was glued to the text block, and the book was ready for the reader. Case binding both sped up the process (the case and the sewing could be worked on simultaneously) and made edition binding economical.

More information on bookbinding:

  • Bookmaking at the American Book Exchange, cover illustration from Scientific American, October 2, 1880
  • Bibliography on 19th Century Publishers' Bindings, compiled by Jane Rodgers Siegel


Exhibit Curator

Claudia Funke and Jane Rodgers Siegel

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu