Books serve to preserve and transmit information both geographically and temporally but almost from the very beginning they have often also been objects d’art. From the earliest illuminated manuscripts to today’s deluxe editions, scribes, printers, and bookbinders have enhanced the value of manuscripts and books by adding elaborate decoration to the information contained within them.
Manuscripts have decorative illuminations that range from simple enhanced capitals or rubrics, to intricate and colorful capitals, borders, and full illustrations.
Decorations have been applied to every surface and aspect of the book. The endpapers have been colored, marbled, bordered with gilt tooling, and featured pictorial decorations. Special paperstock, color plates, and original illustrations often appear in modern limited editions. Some books have elaborate book clasps, slipcases, or clam shell boxes. The edges of the page block have been gilded, colored, marbled, and even enhanced with full paintings known as fore-edge paintings.
The outside of the book has also been used for decoration. Vellum, leather and cloth covers have been produced in many different colors. Sometimes covers feature designs made with inlaid elements, gilt tooling, or embossing. Gilt lettering appears on the boards as well as the spine, as do pictorial decorations. To get a closer look at a wide variety of book bindings I highly recommend visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library’s special digital collection of bindings here.
The Library’s collection contains many examples of decorative bindings. Recently I was working with our rare books on dogs and hounds for another project and noticed a profusion of decorative covers that I’d like to share.
Some of the designs, although detailed, are small, such as this fox terrier which appears in the bottom corner of the front cover of its book and is only about two inches across.
Many of the covers feature portraits such as these noble looking hounds…
Upper left: Dogs of the British Islands by J.H. Walsh (1878). The gift of Dorothy Wagstaff Ripley. Upper right: Scotch Deer-Hounds and their Masters by George Cupples (1894). The gift of Dr. Timothy Greenan. Lower left: Spaniels by H.W. Carlton (1931). The gift of Jacqueline B. Mars. Lower right: The Dog by William Youatt (1858).
Others depict full body images such as this training manual featuring what appears to be some sort of pointer, although one with an oddly shaped head.
Some of the covers incorporate the title of the book into the decorative image.
Left: Training and Handling of the Dog by B. Waters (1894). The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels. Right: The Spaniel and its Training by F.H.F. Mercer (1890).
I especially like the unusual cover for Dogs and Their Doings. This book is a collection of anecdotes describing the surprising and often heroic actions of specific dogs.
Although most of the images were gilt, which is eye-catching and would have been especially so when the volumes were new, there were a few decorated in either color images or black images
Left: British Dogs at Work by A. Croxton Smith (1906). The gift of Joseph B. Thomas IV. Right: Hunting Dogs by Oliver Hartley (1909).
If you’d like to explore books as objects d’art or to read about the history of bookbinding, you’re welcome to come browse the Main Reading Room. If you’d like to get a look at some of our more elaborate bindings or editions, you’ll need to schedule a visit to the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room. Contact me for an appointment, I’d love to share some of our treasures with you.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail.