Origins of Cloth Bindings


URING the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries books were issued to the public, as students of the subject are aware, in two kinds of dress: either in some variety of leather binding-, which was supplied by the bookseller, who might or might not be in some sort the publisher ; or in a mere temporary envelope of paper wrappers, which were gradually superseded during the second half of the eighteenth century by the more practical paper-covered boards, for all except the slimmest volumes. This flimsy covering was adequate for the needs of that slowly decreasing majority of book-buyers who had their own binding done by their own binder, and it was only intended to keep the sheets clean during- their sojourn on the bookseller’s shelf. No book in wrappers or boards was conceived of as remaining permanently in that condition, and such examples as have survived are due to pure chance. Even the advent and increasing prevalence of title labels (of which an example has recently been observed as early as 1748) merely served the convenience of the bookseller, whose shelves must previously have been so confusing as to excuse the most ignorant of salesmen, if there were such things as ignorant salesmen at Mr. Dilly’s in The Poultry.
The lack of uniformity in what must be called “original calf” has always presented difficulties and bred uncertainty: but there is ample evidence that books were so issued. Most collectors of eighteenth-century books will be familiar with the words “Price 2/-; or 2/6, bound” and so forth, on half- titles and an interesting light on practice in the  1780’s is provided by an extensive catalogue, dated 1781, of “Books printed for, and sold by, T. Cadell,” which bears in a prominent position on the title-page the words: “The books are neatly bound and lettered unless otherwise expressed.” Cadell was so large and important a bookseller as to be, to all intents and purposes, a publisher; and only some twenty per cent. of the books in this list are followed by the words”in boards.”
John Bell, too, as Mr. Stanley Morison has recently established, issued his books in calf binding: and although he seems never to have signed them, certain mannerisms of lettering and tooling recur on the bindings of his publications with sufficient frequency to establish something of a “house style” as early as 1780.
Just how far back we may correctly describe “original calf” as publisher’s rather than bookseller’s binding is a difficult question. A publisher’s binding must, I conceive, be the covering of the book during its wholesale as well as its retail period of existence; and the earliest publisher’s binding must therefore be determined by the date of the earliest known invoice in which a wholesale bookseller sells to a retail bookseller a copy of a book bound in leather at a trade price.
But to return to our present subject: in the early years of the nineteenth century it became the practice to issue part of an edition of certain kinds of books in a more definitely uniform style of leather binding. This was mainly confined to sets of volumes   – The Elegant Extracts, Scott’s Poetical Works, Novels & Tales and such-like – which were published in uniform bindings of straight-grain morocco: and publishers were quite clearly developing a taste for uniformity of exterior in their books which was unknown in previous periods and foreign to the more individual taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The time, in fact, was ripe for the evolution of some new style of binding which should combine cheapness, to suit the growing reading public, with something of the elegance and durability of the traditional leather.
The first wholesale application of cloth to the binding of books was, therefore, one of the most important and fruitful events in the whole history of book-structure and publishing practice. It did not ‘preclude subsequent binding in leather, if desired; it provided a compromise between leather and boards ; its practically universal adoption in England and America led to a physical differentiation between our books and those produced on the continent of Europe which has persisted to the present day; lastly, and of most importance to meticulous collectors, it stabilised the binding of a book, so that, once cloth became general, it became possible to say: “This book is, or is not, in the original publisher’s binding.
To those of us who are curious about such things, the origins of such a momentous change in the structure of the book have naturally provided a worthy object of investigation; and within the last few years a good deal has been done towards clearing up the obscurity surrounding them, which had previously been, as far as I can find, matter only for occasional and rather uninterested conjecture. In 1924, then, Mr. Geoffrey Keynes attributed the invention to William Pickering, a in many other ways, far in advance of his contemporaries in enterprise and taste : and he suggested Baxter’s Poetical Fragments (1821) as probably the first book ever published in a cloth binding, thus displacing Bibliotheca Heraldica (1822) which had traditionally occupied the place of honor. The latter would have been in any case suspect by now, since copies he been seen in paper boards; and it is this occurrence of the same book in the two different forms which makes exact dating, on internal evidence only, so hazardous. With certain books, like Lamb’s Poetical Works (2 vols., 1818), it may fairly safely be said that only the copies in boards are of the original issue; since in this case the cloth in which other copies appear is of a texture and style which was not in use until about  1830, and such copies must be “secondaries.” But in the majority of cases where books of the early and middle ‘twenties are found in both styles, it is quite possible that the issue was simultaneous. Nevertheless, since it is always more probable that the cloth copies represent a later binding up, and excessively improbable that they represent an earlier, there is nothing for it but to follow Mr. Michael Sadleir and, in default of external confirmation, be very chary of admitting as evidence any clothbound book which also appears in boards.  

Mr. Sadleir* naturally treated the question in greater detail than Mr. Keynes, and in the case of Poetical Fragments he was disposed to regard the cloth copies as simultaneous with the copy in boards which had by that time come to light. At any rate, he had been unable to find wrappered or
boarded copies of the Virgil, which Pickering published in the same year; and since it and others of the Diamond Classics are regularly found in cloth, he had plausible grounds for assigning the first cloth-bound books to the year 1821. The earliest external evidence available was Robert Leighton’s trade circular of 1849, in which the introduction of cloth was attributed to his father, Archibald Leighton, in the year 1825; and Mr. Sadleir held this date to mark the point at which the style was “in any general sense commercially accessible,” while ” there is very strong evidence that cloth binding existed in 1821, and was regularly practised by one publisher at any rate from that year onward.”
Mr. Keynes and Mr. Sadleir drew their conclusions mainly from internal evidence; that is, from surviving copies of the books themselves; and before proceeding to the discussion of some fresh external evidence,which convincingly upholds their attribution of the introduction of cloth to William Pickering,let us examine Mr. Sadleir’s deductions rather more closely in the light of certain copies of the books in question. After dealing with Baxter’s Poetical Fragments (1821) in purple cloth, he says: “Of other early Pickering publications, it must be noted that all cloth copies seen are in the usual red cloth. They include the Chaucer (1821) which Mr. Keynes, at any rate, has never seen in boards. Also, and more numerously, they include the Diamond Classics. Once again it is arguable that the red-cloth copies were so cased for jobbing. But a set exists of all except the very first (Horace, 1821) in red cloth; none has been seen in boards; and not even the earliest of all (Virgil, 1821) has in the least degree a secondary appearance.”

Now, of these books, I have before me as I write copies of Horace (1820), Cicero (1821 ), Terence ( 1823) in boards; and Horace (1824) and one of the nine volumes of the Shakespeare (1825) in drab wrappers. Furthermore, except for Horace, which was reprinted in 1824 and 1826, the original editions of the Diamond Classics never went out of print at all during Pickering’s lifetime: batches were bound up at intervals during the half- century after their publication, whence the great variety of different cloths in which they appear; and the catalogue of Pickering’s stock issued in 1878 contains numerous lots of the various titles in sheets. Copies of most of them do exist in what is clearly a very early cloth indeed, as Mr. Sadleir noted of the Virgil; ill-calendered material,primitive-looking enough when the glaze has rubbed off, as is usually the case with surviving examples, but with a smooth elegance when well preserved. And it would be folly to rule such copies out entirely merely because the books also exist in boards and because a variety of later cloths are found on the same sheets. But it will be seen that in the ‘circumstances the internal evidence provided by the Diamond Classics must be weighed with the most sceptical attention.
After which clearing, of the ground, let us consider the following, extracts, taken from the March and May numbers, 1855, of ‘The Bookbinders’Trade Circular. The first occurs in a History of Bookbinding, which ran through several issues of this now very scarce periodical; it is unsigned, but I suspect it, on stylistic grounds, of being the work of T. J. Dunning, the editor and a prominent person in the trade during the middle of the nineteenth century.


It may be interesting to relate the origin of this mode of binding, which has produced results so important to the trade. It is superfluous to say, that the present cloth work is altogether different from the mode of covering spelling and other books in canvas, which had previously been in use for a very long period. It might be supposed, that the present cloth wdrk had been suggested by this previous mode. Such, however, is not the fact.
Its introduction is due to Mr. Pickerineg, bookseller, at that time of Lincoln’s inn-fields, and afterwards of Chancery-lane. The idea was suggested to him by observing the lining – which was of a French red colour – of some chintz curtains. It occurred to him that this lining would answer well for the covers of books. Mr. Pickering was at that time (1823) publishing a diamond edition of “The Classics,” 48mo, printed by Corrall, of Charing-cross ; and he thought that this material would be admirably adapted for the covers of this work. He accordingly supplied his binder, Mr. Archibald Leighton, of Exmouth-street, with this kind of calico for that purpose. “Shakespere’s Plays,” were also published in this form; and these works were the first books bound in cloth. Mr. Pickering continued to supply the cloth for some time to the binder for his books. This calico being prepared merely for the purpose of “lining” as above mentioned, was not thought to be sufficiently glazed for the covers of books. A glazed calico was therefore produced, which was stiffened, previous to glazing, by some preparation of animal gelatine. This preparation, however, did not work well with the glue, a precisely similar substance, which was used for covering the books. Starch, or some similar vegetable substance, was, therefore, soon after substituted, for stiffening the calico, by which a very great improvement in its subsequent appearance was effected. This change was introduced by Mr. Archibald Leighton.


In reference to the account given in the last number of the origin of cloth work, we publish the following extract from a letter from our talented Correspondent, Mr. R. E. Lawson:

” 61 Stanhope-st., May 6th, 1855.

‘Dear Sir,—In the article on ‘Cloth Binding’ in the last ‘Circular,’ you state, very truly, that ‘its introduction is due to Mr. Pickering,’ but here the truth ceases. Mr. Chas. Sully, for whom I then worked, in conjunction with Wm. Greenfield, the eminent linguist, was the ORIGINAL BINDER of Mr. Pickering’s ‘Diamond Classics.’ But it was myself that furnished the idea to Mr. Pickering, whom I had known several years previously to his being in business, as far back as 1809.
“Thus the ‘Binding’ in question originated : Mr. Pickering came one evening    I remember, perfectly well, that the candles were alight  – into the shop – I believe No. 2, Upper John-street, Golden-square, and announced, to Mr. Sully, that he was about to publish the works above-named, and wished a quantity done in morocco, and a portion in boards. ‘Now,’ said he to Mr. Sully, ‘could you not suggest some neater mode in which to do the boarded portion, than the present one?’ I immediately handed to Mr. Pickering, from my sideboard, a small, oblong quarto of MS. music, for the guitar, which myself and Mr. Sully were studying, under the same master at that time, bound in light blue glazed calico ; a remnant of some my mother had been lining her window curtain with, and asked Mr. Pickering ‘what he thought of THAT.’ ‘The VERY THING; said he, ‘and, excepting the colour, will do admirably’; after a little deliberation, it was decided that they should be done in couleur du puce, which was the case, while the old style of ‘lettering’ was retained in the now rarely-to-be-met-with form of the white printed ‘label’ of the period! The books came in – one thousand copies ; five hundred were done in morocco, five hundred in ‘cloth’ boards; the ‘cloth’ was purchased at the corner of Wilderness-row, St. John-street, and the whole of the `ci,o-rd copies were covered by myself with glue, Richard Cross, Mr. Sully’s apprentice at the time, squaring the boards,’ and ‘drawing in.’

Now it will be observed that Extract I is precise both about the binder and about the first book bound in cloth: and as the engaging Mr. Lawson’s correction was apparently accepted on the first point, since neither by editorial comment nor correspondence was it contradicted in subsequent issues, one could wish that he had been more definite about the actual book. “The works above named,” he says, which must mean “Mr. Pickering’s Diamond Classics” ; and again “the books came in—one thousand copies.” It is too tantalizing.
The next line of investigation is clearly Pickering’s own Catalogues and Announcement Lists: and these present some interesting and puzzling features. The only advertisements I have been able to find earlier than the Spring of 1825 are on the blank leaves of some of the Diamond Classics, and on the back wrappers in the part-issue of the Shakespeare, which was spread over the years 1823-25. These only list the other volumes of the series, and where any indication of the binding is given (about seven cases out of ten) it is invariably “boards” or “bds.” The Spring List of  1825, 16 pages octavo, is an extensive affair, however, including, I think, all Pickering’s publications to date. The Chaucer (1822) is listed in boards; sets of the “Miniature Latin and Italian Classics” (as they were described until about 1827) “in 10 vols., boards, price l2 17s., or bound in morocco by Hering, l4 7s.”; and in all other cases where binding is mentioned it is “boards,” except for the Bacon and the Johnson, which are announced as open for subscription, “in extra boards,” which in the trade parlance of the time usually denotes “all-over” paper boards, as opposed to board sides backed with some other colored paper.

Then, in the Spring List of 1826, comes the expected reference to cloth. The Prospectus of the Oxford English Classics (published in conjunction with Talboys & Wheeler, of Oxford) announces the series as “neatly done up in extra cloth boards,” and describes the various volumes already published as “in red cloth, lettered.” (This last, of course, means “labelled.”) The Johnson is one of these : and the Bacon is also listed in this catalogue as “in extra red cloth boards.” All the other books advertised are described, if at all, as “in boards.”
An 1827 list contains no mention of cloth at all ; an 1828 offers Facciolati “in canvas boards,” A’Kempis “in extra cloth boards,” the Diamond Slzakespeare, Boswell and Johnson”in extra boards”; everything else” in boards.”
Now two things seem to me curious in these descriptions. The first is this : when a publisher introduces a totally new method of binding books, why does he not say more about it? Pickering knew something of the value of novelty as an advertisement, as his entry into publishing with the Diamond Classics shows clearly enough : yet he draws not the slightest attention to a far more daunnnovation. merely observing, as it were apologetically, that the books were “neatly done up in extra cloth boards.” One does not look for publicity in the modern style ; but even allowing for the conservatism and good manners of the trade in those days this does seem excessive reticence.
The second peculiarity lies in the sequence of the descriptions of one book in successive lists. Observe the Oxford Classics edition of Johnson_ 1825, “in extra boards”; 1826, in red cloth, lettered”; 1827, “in extra boards”; ‘828, the same. This looks very much as if “extra boards” and “cloth” mean the same thin, since the same edition is referred to throughout; and no copies of any of the Oxford Classics exist, so far as I know, in boards. Further, the Diamond Classics are never described as in cloth in these lists until the middle ‘thirties, only the Shakespeare even appearing “in extra boards,” in 1827 ; yet one cannot relegate the earliest cloth copies of Virgil and Cicero to a date as late as 1830.
I referred above to a clearing of the ground : it is now handsomely covered again with these conflicting odds and ends of evidence, sadly uncorrelated with contemporary publishers’ procedure and other relevant matters, and only productive of the most tentative conclusions. The two extracts establish fairly securely the attribution to William Pickering of the introduction of cloth : and the second of them suggests a hitherto obscure bindery as his agent in the innovation. As to the first book so issued, we are more in the dark than ever. I have emphasised by examples the admitted uncertainty of internal evidence: the first extract, if I have read it correctly, makes a claim for the Shakespeare (1825) which is not specifically supported (or refuted) by the second: the sequence of Pickering lists at first sight seems to agree with this date, since cloth is not mentioned ii the Spring List of 1825 and appears in the Spring List of  1826; but on closer scrutiny there develops the possibility—almost a probability—that Pickering at any rate used “extra boards” to mean “cloth.” which pushes the date back to the Spring of 1825.
This article, however, does not pretend to do more than offer some observations for the perusal of the learned, with the hope of provoking amplification and contradiction and it should more properly have been headed Contributions towards the Prolegomena to a Study of the Origins of Publishers’ Cloth Binding.


*If anyone at this point indignantly refers me to fifty variant bindings he_knows of in Victorian publishing or to Mr. Sadleir’s book (referred to below), let me say at once that I have met plenty myself and have read the book; but the generalisafion will serve.

*William Pickering, Publisher, by Geoffrey Keynes, F.R.C.S. (London, The Fleuron, 19:4).

*The Evolution of Publishers’ Binding Styles, 1770-1900, by Michael Sadleir
(Bibliographia Series, No. I, Richard R. Smith, 1930).

*Op. cit. page 43. It should be noted that the dates are actually Chaucer, 1822; Horace, 1820.