Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The once-lavish art of bookbinding

The work of special collections librarians in making exhibits available online has been a godsend for  folks who love to gaze upon beauteous examples of the bookmaking art from days gone by. What a wonderful way for bibliophiles to indulge a love of exquisite book design, without the risk of penury! Here are samples from what I imagine are dozens of such troves (I see much more sleuthing in the future). First, the University of Alabama's exhibit of bindings moves through various aesthetic movements, as pictured below.
This cover for Louisa May Alcott's first book, Flower Fables (New York: Hurst & Co., 1900) exemplifies the "poster craze" that swept America in the 1890s. The same design was used for the book and advertising poster.
E. J. Harvey Darton. Tales of the Canterbury Pilgrims. London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1906. Irish-born artist Hugh Thomson's cover design is a fabulous introduction to Chaucer's characters. The publisher's advertisement lists this edition for six shillings. Ours goes for $10—I wonder if that's comparable!

Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) was one of the best artists who worked in book publishing. In Notes of an Informal Talk on Book Illustration … Given before the Boston Art Students Association, Feb. 14, 1895, she wrote, "You have got to think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price, which allows for no handwork, the decoration to be cut with a die, the books to [go] out by the thousand and to be sold at a low price." Whitman also created the Pocahontas cover, below. Both designs show her distinctive lettering style.


Like the two previous examples, this design by Amy M. Sacker for A Daughter of New France (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1901) shows an intoxicating use of art nouveau themes, with the flowers taking on an almost human substance and aura. Sacker studied with Henry Hunt Clark at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and founded a school of her own in the late 1890s. Below, more opulence and a picturesque view of Vassar women, circa 1900?


The cover for The Three Ronins exemplifies the "Japonisme" style, used for works by Lafcadio Hearn and others.
Tomorrow: two more collections.

14 comments:

  1. I really like the Poster Style from the Louisa May Alcott, and the photos also included on the website. I definitely think very similar designs are coming back not on book covers but on actual posters and street art.

    I wish more current books had these elaborate designs and weren't just abstract stock images.

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  2. Maybe book binding will come back en vogue soon. Mark my words! E-readers are blowin' up now but in a few years brilliantly crafted editions will be back by popular demand. Collector's items only maybe or more for fashion than function...status symbols, like vinyls. The Beebs will go on Ellen and talk about his collection of handbound Vonneguts.

    CDs...maybe they will make a comeback soon. In little wooden jewel cases...with hand stitched liner notes and tiny wooden screws holding them together.

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    1. I love your imaginative forecasts~!

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    2. It's already started, with Barnes & Noble leading the way. They have some beautiful embossed hardcover versions of the classics, which are pricey, but also some really nice paperback Shakespeare plays for less.

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  3. Agreed, gang. Lurking in the shadows, there's still enough of us that appreciate labors of love in the book universe...

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    1. Let's form a rowdy gang of book cover liberators, and go to bookstores and libraries with our own embossing equipment. We'll put the dust jacket back on and when the book encounters its reader it will great them with a beautiful surprise!

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    2. This is social anarchy I can get behind...

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    3. Sounds good, I'll start working on a logo!! Everyone else, first rule of "BOOKMOB" is - "Don't talk about BOOKMOB!" Haha, love it:)

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    4. Wilhelm, we've got it - AARP: Artfully Altering for your Reading Pleasure.

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  4. I've always been a fan of Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau, and its always such a treat to remove the annoying dusk jacket from a book and see a pretty design or the books title embossed on the binding. bottom line is dusk jackets aren't any fun, and I too am all about the simplicity and beauty of book binding

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    1. I agree with you on dust jackets, but I can never bring myself to just get rid of them. Usually, I will take them off and lay them aside while reading and then put them back on before shelving.

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    2. Good idea-- the dust jackets keep the book covers clean. And I use the flaps to hold my place, if the book isn't too thick. Bookmarks always fall out.

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  5. Love the Canterbury Pilgrims. And is that the Francesca who wound up so unfortunately punished in Dante? Someone did a play on her backstory?

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  6. For anyone interested in other work by Amy Sacker ("A Daughter of New France"), you might enjoy exploring her creative output at

    http://www.anysacker.net
    Just FYI . . .

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