Publishers' Bindings: 1890-1910

Most significant in the last decade of the century, particularly in America, is the rise of the artist-designer. From the late 1880s until about the start of World War I, book covers reached new levels of sophistication through highly professional layouts and stylized pictorial representations. The social and economic range of people buying books had perhaps never been greater, and publishers had long known that decorated book covers were very cost-effective advertising.

Architects, landscape painters, illustrators and graphic artists alike were drawn to book design. While some of these designers would be responsible for only a handful of covers, others were extremely prolific, producing hundreds and hundreds of covers. Consequently, decorated cases of this period display an astonishing diversity of design styles and reflect a wide range of influences, including the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Japanese prints and the so-called poster style of design. (The work of Thomas Watson Ball exhibits many of these styles: a portfolio of his work may be seen here)

Many of these designers believed that a book's physical appearance should reflect its literary content and made an effort to relate decorations to the text, sometimes in collaboration with the author. The color and texture of cloth was considered in relation to the design it supported, and the cloth weave and texture often became an integral part of the overall design. Decoration began to extend from the front cover across the spine to the back board.

In the 1890s American inventors produced machines that would facilitate, even supplant, the making of cases by hand. George H. Sanborn & Sons of New York introduced a case-smoothing machine in 1891, closely followed by competitors' models in 1893 and 1896. The Smyth Company produced a cloth-cutting machine in 1901 as well as the first successful casing-in machine in 1903. Between 1900 and 1903, the Sheridan Company adapted earlier patents to make an automatic gathering machine. All of the major binding operations--folding, gathering, sewing, rounding and backing and casing--could now be completed by an assortment of machines.

After 1900, cover designs gradually became simpler. By 1910, the widespread use of decorated cloth on books was largely at an end. The illustrated paper book jacket, which had been in limited use for years, caught the public's fancy and proved to be an even cheaper advertising tool than decorated cloth cases. The golden age of publishers' bookbindings was over.