Publishers' Bindings: 1850-1859

By mid-century, materials and production techniques had advanced sufficiently to allow more sophisticated and complex designs. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had a tremendous impact on design throughout all of the applied arts, including trade and edition binding. Especially in England in the 1850s-60s, the elaborately embellished gift book was at its peak and is often considered emblematic of high Victorian design. The dense use of ornament on many of these books rendered the cloth beneath almost invisible. Beginning in the late 1840s and continuing through this decade, gift books were often cased in rich red cloth, which displayed the gold to great effect.

In England, the signatures of professional designers – John Leighton, Robert Dudley and William Harry Rogers among them – began to appear regularly on bindings. In America, what signatures appear on covers are almost always those of the die engraver, e.g. John Feely or William Tompson, or the binder. During this decade American publishers began blind stamping their names, often in initial form, in a central cartouche on book covers. Overall blind stamped designs are also a common feature of 'fifties books, particularly in America.

In both countries, gift books, which occupied the relatively high end of the commercial book trade, were produced concurrently with more affordable books that featured more restrained decoration. Some unusual binding styles, including papier-mâché, "Relievo", and tortoiseshell, were popular for brief periods. Central vignettes, whether formal or pictorial, increased in size from the 1840s, sometimes crowding into their ornamental frames. On mid-range books, front covers were often decorated with both gold and blind blocking while the back was blocked only in blind, perhaps as a cost saving technique. Lettering became expressive, often drawing on forms from nature, like branches and vines, a trend that would continue for several decades.

By mid-century, competition between publishers and the overall pace of publishing had increased. Edition binderies were sometimes advanced a dummy copy of a book so that they could make cases before the edition was even printed. By 1851, a typical American-made stamping press was capable of making sixteen impressions per minute, i.e., a skilled pressman could decorate sixteen cases per minute. Once the printer delivered the edition, each copy was gathered and sewn for joining to the waiting cases. Large trade binderies could case in up to a one thousand volumes in six hours.