Victorian Cloth Bindings: Introduction

Thursday 25 August 2016

This new mini-series of blog posts will examine British cloth bindings during the Victorian era, that is, from the 1830s until the turn of the 20th century.

We’re starting at the 1830s because this is when the technology for cloth bindings took off.

Pic 1_1
A binding with a raised repeat pattern on a coarse sand grain background, with a green paper title label on the front cover. William Kingston, The Kingstonian system of painting in dry colours (Weymouth: B. Benson; London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1835), s ND1286.K5.

The art of covering a book in cloth was invented in the early 1820s. The first materials used were dress materials such as silk and satin, but these were unsuitable for everyday use as the glue came through easily and the lack of ‘body’ or stiffness made them difficult to work with.

Pic 2_1
Two examples of red silk bindings, both with titles in gilt on the spine. The first work also has a coronet blocked in gilt on both boards. A manual of the baronetage of the British Empire (London: James Fraser, 1832), s CS424.B5 ; Affection’s gift; or flowers of sacred poesy (London: Simpkin and Marshall, [1830?]), s PR1191.A3.
Archibald Leighton is generally credited with the invention, in 1825, of the cotton cloth material we know so well today, impervious to an ordinary application of glue or paste, and retaining its stiffness on being moistened by adhesive, although the publisher William Pickering was issuing cloth-bound books as early as 1821.

Pic 3_1
Published in 1825, is this an early example of a cloth binding, or a text in a later binding? Select poetry chiefly on subjects connected with religion (London: L.B. Seeley and Son, 1825), s PR1191.S4.

Experiments were devised in about 1823 to colour the cloth – for colour was much more attractive than plain calico, resulting in books clothed in blues, greens, reds, and even purples.

Pic 4_1
An example of a plain dyed cloth. Manual of rank and nobility (London: Saunders and Otley, 1828), s CS419.M2.
Pic 5_1
A green diaper grain binding, with a red leather spine label blocked in gold. Isaac Taylor, Elements of thought (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834), s B49.T3.
Pic 6_1
A purple ribbon-embossed binding with a frond grain pattern. Théodore Leclercq, Proverbes dramatiques of Mr Théodore Leclercq (London: Longman, Rees, Orme and Co., 1835), s PQ2330.L8P82.
Pic 7_1
A blue floral repeat pattern consisting of the Scottish thistle, English rose, and Irish shamrock. The authenticated report of the discussion which took place in the chapel of the Roman Catholic College of Downside, near Bath (London: J.G. and F. Rivington; J. Booker, 1836), s BX1779.T7D7.

Cloth remained popular because it was a cheap method of binding a book (although in the 1850s prices shot up as a result of the successive Crimean War, American Civil War, and cotton famine). Technological advances meant the covers could be decorative: machinery was invented in the 1830s which could emboss the cloth, providing further ornamentation; the means of applying black, then colour, and finally silver, developed in the coming decades, adding further decoration. Cloth was here to stay. It could be used both for cheap editions, and for expensive gift books.

Pic 8_1
The binding on this work, blue cloth with dark blue and red blocking, with gold blocking at the spine edges, gives the impression of being two different cloths. Charles G. Leland, The Breitmann ballads (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd, 1894), Fle PS2242.B8E94.
Pic 9_1
This binding is very indicative of the lavish use of gilt which prevailed in the 1850s and 1860s. I particularly like the use of larder animals in the border. Jules Gouffé, The royal cookery book (le livre de cuisine) (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1868; bound by Burn & Co.), r TX719.G6.

In the coming weeks we’ll look at various aspects of cloth bindings. We’ll consider the means of decorating the cloth, from grains and blocking, to various methods of achieving a colourful design; We’ll take a look at how titles developed, from being printed on paper labels to becoming an integral part of the cover design; and, finally, take a look at book designers and artists, and the influences which they had on book cover design.

Pic 10_1
A binding for the publisher Walter Scott, consisting of beige calico-texture cloth, with delicate gilt blocking emanating from the spine onto both covers. Contemporary Scottish verse (London: Walter Scott, 1893), Lan PR8651.D7.

We hope this brief introduction has whetted your appetite for the weeks to come!

Briony Harding
Assistant Rare Books Librarian

Briony says: “A note of caution: just because a book is found with a particular binding doesn’t mean that the binding is contemporary with the text which it encloses. Publishers’ bindings may post-date the actual text by anything up to ten years (and sometimes more, Michael Sadleir citing a case of a London binder who received an order in 1924 to bind a book dated 1905 on the title page). I acknowledge that I am not an expert, and can only apologise in advance for any errors which I may make.”

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12 thoughts on "Victorian Cloth Bindings: Introduction"

  • Saloni
    Thursday 25 August 2016, 11.31am

    Ooh, this is heaven for me!

    • Briony Harding
      Briony Harding
      Thursday 1 September 2016, 2.48pm

      We're glad you like it!

      • Saloni
        Thursday 1 September 2016, 3.35pm

        Yes. Absolutely!

      • Karen McAulay
        Karen McAulay
        Saturday 31 July 2021, 6.14pm

        I love this! And then imagine my pleasure at discovering I'm already acquainted with the author! Well done, Briony.

  • John F. O'Regan
    John F. O'Regan
    Thursday 1 September 2016, 5.23am

    Could you please define the word "blocking" as opposed to embossing or stamping? Thank you.

    • Briony Harding
      Briony Harding
      Thursday 1 September 2016, 2.47pm

      Hi John, ‘blocking’ (sometimes referred to as ‘stamping’) is the process of impressing a design into the covering material of a book, by means of a stamp or block (a piece of metal bearing an engraved or etched design). ‘Embossing’ is the technique of giving a decorative design in bas-relief above the surface of the book cover. Hope this has helped to clarify things for you.

  • Latest Library Links 2nd September 2016 | Latest Library Links
    Friday 2 September 2016, 1.29pm

    […] Victorian cloth bindings […]

  • Jake Benson
    Jake Benson
    Saturday 3 September 2016, 5.00pm

    Thanks for your post! I am researching a very early calico printed textile that was used to hinge together an Indian album in the University of Edinburgh and also used to cover a copy of Chess Made Easy published in Baltimore in 1839. It seems to be an abstract pattern in imitation of a leather grain. Andrea Krupp, the author of Bookcloth thought it was reminiscent of “tree-calf” marbling, but I also think it could be meant to imitate morocco grain. Andrea has never been able to find any further information, as it dates to the very beginning of industrial book cloth manufacturing. I was interested in the reference to Archibald Leighton, but I wonder if he primarily produced embossed cloths or did he also start out printing cloth like this? This reference may provide a clue: "Up to the year 1838, bookbinders' cloth was obtained by purchasing the white calico in Manchester, it was then sent to the dyer in London, after that the calenderer who stiffened and glazed it. It was then ready to use in the plain state."

  • Book Covers – Bubble Illustration
    Saturday 1 December 2018, 7.11pm

    […] binding with a raised repeat pattern on a coarse sand grain background [ONLINE]. Available at: [Accessed 1 December […]

    Sunday 20 January 2019, 8.33pm

    Can you direct me to information/videos on how binders created blind-stamped cloth? John Flynn

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Monday 21 January 2019, 9.31am

      Hi John, there is a description of the technique used in the article ‘Book cover designs made by Burn & Company for Macmillan: the first forty years’ by Edmund M.B. King, available online at There may also be something helpful in The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques by P.J.M. Marks (The British Library, 1998). Hope this helps.

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    Monday 25 February 2019, 6.34am

    […] Victorian Cloth Bindings: Introduction […]


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