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University Archives and History

American Publishers Trade Bindings

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American Trade Bindings Blog


About the collection

Book coverThe American Publishers' Trade Bindings Digital Library presents over 3300 book covers which chronicle the development of book binding in the United States. The APTB project contains a variety of both fiction and non-fiction titles, primarily from the Charles M. Adams American Trade Binding Collection, published between the 1830s and the 1920s.


The story of American publishers' bindings, or trade bindings, actually began in England about 1820. Archibald Leighton, an English bookbinder, is credited with the invention of book cloth around that date. William Pickering, the eminent English publisher, was the first to issue books bound in cloth. The invention of bookbinding cloth began with a quest for durability. Once found, a technique of sizing the cloth had to be devised so that the glues used in the binding would not seep through the porous cloths. The next development was uniform dyeing followed by techniques of stamping and embossing the cloth to give them interesting surfaces. Early cloths were often pressed between stamping rollers, a process that resulted in various textures given imaginative names such as diaper, ripple, wavy, dot, bubble, and sand. Next, a method of gold leaf application was perfected for cloth (binders had been applying gold to leather for two centuries) followed by new techniques for applying black and other colors. These innovations took place over a period of approximately fifty years.


During most of the 19th century, the decorating of bookbindings made of cloth was the work of the diesinkers, for it was not until the 1880s that publishing houses began to seek out artists and designers to decorate and illustrate their book covers. This entirely new field of endeavor opened up new opportunities for artistic, creative expression. It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 250 different artists were working in this area of book design between 1890 and 1915, but only a handful of these talented designers became well known. The majority of these artists will remain as anonymous as the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages.


Although the American bookmaking industry was initially influenced by English methods and techniques, style in the area of trade binding generally developed without marked English influence. Large firms such as Scribner's and the small literary publishing houses such as Copeland & Day in Boston and Stone & Kimball in Chicago were employing well-known artists and illustrators to design their bindings in the 1880s and 1890s. Major contributors to this new field of endeavor included Helen and Margaret ArmstrongWill BradleyThomas Maitland ClelandFrank Hazenplug, and Bruce Rogers. These individuals, and others equally talented but less well-known, brought the art of cloth binding design to its fullest form. As early as the 1890s, bibliophile clubs recognized the significant place held by American trade bindings in the history of publishing in America. In 1892 and 1894 in New York both the Aldine and the Grolier Clubs held exhibitions of contemporary illustrated cloth bindings.


By about 1910 the cloth binding industry was forced to rely upon the simpler styles of nearly one hundred years earlier. The economic impact of World War I brought about an end to the era of expensive, decorated cloth and by the 1920s any hope of reviving the craft was lost. The illustrated paper dust jacket was cheaper to produce and quickly gained the acceptance of the reading public. Indeed, the introduction of the dust jacket as a regular element of the book opened up new opportunities for graphic artists. Today's dust jackets both protect and decorate the book, but they are also designed attractively enough to encourage the reader to buy the product.


To learn more about binding history, styles, and designers, please visit Publisher's Bindings Online, which contains essays on a number of topics related to book arts.

About the project

The American Trade Bindings project primarily contains books from the Charles M. Adams American Trade Binding Collection, named in 1987 for the former UNCG librarian largely responsible for the collection’s establishment. The Special Collections & Rare Books Department of the UNCG University Libraries contains several other collections documenting book arts, include Artists' Books and Livres d'Artiste, Athenaeum Press Collection, and the Way & Williams Publishers Collection. Some selections from the Early Juvenile Literature Collection and the Woman's Collection are also available online through the ATB website. The project was managed and produced by the Digital Projects unit of the University Libraries.


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