Bookbinding and Class

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, books became more readily available and affordable in the United States and in the United Kingdom. With this rapidly increasing availability,  publishers needed to “meet the needs of [the] prospective customers seeking less expensive binding options” (Butler 24). Whereas books used to be incredibly expensive during the hand-press period and, at times, hard to find, the widespread development of publisher’s bindings and the mass production of books made them more affordable and accessible across social classes; this lead to a shift in the intended audience of books that spread beyond the elite and began to appeal to any individual with enough wealth to afford books. As bookbinding historian David Pearson argues, the sudden “little to no choice available to the purchaser at point of sale” in regards to binding, proved as a change in both audience and market (141). However, despite the broadening of the audience, books continued to mainly represent the upper-class individual instead of the working-class individual. While the showcasing of wealth began through the use of expensive materials and intricate designs in the bindings, it shifted to focus on portraying the wealthy through images printed on the bindings.

Through the designs of the bindings, publishers were able to appeal aesthetically to the upper class while also appealing financially to individuals below the upper class. The images printed on most of the bindings I studied depicted children of the upper classes; more specifically, 61 out of the 102 books studied had images of children on their cover and all of the children depicted in these bindings are of the upper class as is evident by their clothing and, at times, even their physical location. For instance, in Little Merry Makers (1895), published by Imperial Publishing Co., the binding shows children playing on a farm; however, they are dressed in dress clothes, clothing not appropriate for a farm. For example, the girls are wearing dresses and the boys are in sailor suits. In Sparkles and Joy (1893), published by Monarch Book Co., the well-dressed child depicted is sitting by an intricate fireplace in a sitting room, which alludes to the lifestyle of the wealthy as opposed to the lifestyle of the working class since the decor in the sitting room appears to be very expensive and luxurious. By showing these nicely-dressed children in various settings, the bindings are able to appeal to the upper class by showing them that they are the ones being represented in the books; this ties into the concept of the double transaction since it is more likely for a parent to care more about class representation in a binding than a child would which shows the way in which publishers appeal to the parents. Similarly, the depiction of upper-class children also appeals to the upper-class children who are, in a way, seeing themselves on the cover of a book. The publishers have used representation as a way to market the book to children of the upper class. The double transaction is at play here since the publishers are attempting to appeal to both upper-class parents and kids.

Mamma's Bible Stories.jpeg Jolly Little Playmates.jpeg

When viewing books as pieces of art that could be displayed in the home, one of the most luxurious qualities of bindings was their use of gold leaf. The use of gold leaf in bindings such as Mamma’s Bible Stories gives the books a more expensive feel and appeals more to the parent who would want these books displayed in the home. Gold leaf also adds to the way in which bindings used to be something to be displayed at the home as a symbol of class and wealth. 14 (13%) of the bindings I looked at contained gold leaf and 13 of those bindings were published before 1900 which points to gold leaf being a trend before the turn of the century. The use of gold leaf in bindings adds to the concept of luxury in regards to books and can appeal as another way for the parents to display their wealth. Gold leaf was used in books bound by either cloth or leather which differs in quality and luxury from the aforementioned cardboard and paper bindings. Debossing was the main way through which gold leaf was incorporated into the bindings; this material and imprinting is a more evident display of luxury because the line is blurred between adult and children's literature. For instance, in a book such as Is Santa Claus An American? (XX) it is hard to tell whether the book is meant to be read by adults or children because of the binding style, which is simple and only contains the title debossed into the cloth and filled in with gold leaf; however, a book like At Grandpa’s Farm (XX), which is bound in cardboard, has an image of children playing on the cover which makes it evident that the intended literary audience is children. The gold leaf serves as a way in which to enhance the luxury of a book and appeals to the higher class because of its presentation and because it would make books more expensive. 

The stylistic shift between using gold leaf to using the color gold in bindings continues to represent the value of luxury within bookbinding and the appeal of luxury. Gold continues to be a timeless symbol of elegance and, despite the newfound developments in bookbinding, it continues to be valued as such and used. The shift from gold leaf to gold paint, the former being significantly more expensive than the latter, depicts the shift to cheaper materials during the mass-production era of bookbinding. When it comes to selling bindings, it is evident that the inclusion of gold in the bindings is used to appeal to the parents who want to maintain the elegance of a binding despite the images in the cover appealing more towards the children. The subtle gold in the children found in the binding of Jolly Little Playmates (1896) is a subtle way to highlight what should be the focus of the image and it also serves as an appeal to the parent who will associate this gold with luxury despite it being found in a children’s book. The use of gold in publisher’s bindings points to its importance since it is a way through which to give these mass-produced bindings a sense of character in an otherwise plain image; it also makes the image seem more handcrafted rather than printed by a machine which can appeal to those who view books as pieces of arts. Since the binding of books became more Gold continues to be a timeless symbol of luxury and, despite the newfound developments in bookbinding, it continues to be valued as such and used throughout time as a symbol of wealth that is able to appeal to both the lower classes by making them feel as if they own something of luxury and to the upper classes by maintaining the feeling of luxury despite the changes in the developments of bindings.