Last week we considered grains as a form of decoration, whereby the natural grain of the cloth was disguised with a design. Almost simultaneously with the development of a myriad of grains came another revolution in book-binding practice: the discovery of a method of preparing the surface of the cloth so that books could be gold-lettered rapidly and in sufficient quantities for commercial purposes. Again, it was Archibald Leighton who perfected a process for preparing the surface of cloth, and thus introduced the gold-blocking of cloth which has been practiced ever since.
In 1832 John Murray published the first book in the world to have gold blocked directly onto its cloth spine. At first gold was primarily used for titles, where they would appear on the spine, often surrounded by a frame.
Later, gilt was utilised for small central decorations, which could vary in size, some becoming larger and larger, sometimes to the detriment of the overall proportions of the cover design.
By the 1850s more and more gilt was being applied to book covers. Whilst an entire cover could be covered in gold, in some instances it was just the spine, where a pattern or design spread down its whole surface. In some instances spine designs were separate entities to the cover design; the best picked up a motif from the cover, but there are those whose design is incongruous.
Blocking in blind (where a smooth surface was produced on the cloth without the addition of ink or metallic leaf) followed gilt blocking, and was generally restricted to the use of borders (an ornamental design in a repeat pattern), frames (simple lines to make a rectangle), and cornerpieces, although these were seldom used until the end of the 1830s, becoming more prevalent in the 1840s.
Blocking in blind was not often used on its own (covering the front, back, and spine of a book), such examples being rather unusual. More often blind blocking was found in conjunction with gold blocking; a blind border with gilt central motif was a popular combination.
Occasionally blind blocking was used to give a pattern to the size of the book, rather than being designed for the cloth which was then cut to the size of the book. Such bindings are identified by the fact that the design fits the book size, and doesn’t go over the edges. Some designs incorporated floral motifs, but other could be very geometric.
Whilst the 1830s saw blocking in gilt and blind, the mid-1840s saw another innovation: the introduction of ink blocking, nearly always in black. This facilitated the publication of cheap editions, where black ink replaced gilt. At the end of the 1850s blocking in black and gilt became a popular combination.
Although gold blocking was mastered in the 1830s, silver as a colour was a late developer. It had first been used in 1839. Messrs Longman wrote in September 1839 to Lady Blessington announcing that a satisfactory invention had been made public for preventing the tarnishing of silver on cloth. Yet it appears that Messrs Longman were either too optimistic, or that the secret was immediately lost, for the few silver-blocked books issued during the next twenty or thirty years have all tarnished badly. It was not until the 1880s that a reliable ‘silver’ (in actual fact aluminium) was developed.
So, this week we’ve seen the development of blocking, from gilt to blind to black to silver. Next week we’ll take a look at how colour was introduced into cloth bindings, from creating colour combinations in the cloth itself to the development of successful colour blocking.
5 thoughts on "Victorian cloth bindings, week 3: blocking in gold, blind, black, and silver"
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So what was the first book in the world to have gold blocked directly on to its spine?
It was a multi-volume set, being "The Works of Lord Byron; with his Letters and Journals and his Life by Thomas Moore, Esq”. Michael Sadleir (in his "The Evolution of Publishers' Binding Styles 1770-1900" (1930) pp. 49-50) stated that the gold blocking first appeared on vol. 3, vol. 1 and 2 having paper labels.
Thank you. We have a copy of this on our shelves. Unfortunately it was rebound at some point, probably after the centenary fire.
I seem to recall a comment, possibly in one of Sadleir's writings, that the first example of this type of 'silver' blocking might have been in the Chatto & Windus 1881 edition of Wilkie Collins's 'The Black Robe'. Do you think this is correct? For an illustration, see http://www.wilkie-collins.info/books_black_robe.htm