Big Bold Bindings on 19th-Century Picture Books

Over the last few months, I’ve been selecting the illustrations for the forthcoming third volume of the Cotsen catalogue, which will describe over 5,000 children’s books published between 1800 and 1899.  It’s been enormous fun to get acquainted with the hidden jewels of nineteenth-century graphic design.  I’ve been especially delighted by example after example of  books bound in boards covered with paper color-printed with magnificent illustrations.

In the following three front covers the artists have transformed the front boards into posters.  I also like them as different representations of  children learning to see.

Cotsen 5808.

Wilhelm von Breitschwert’s  cover design for Pracht-ABC: das schonste Bilderbuch, (ca. 1868) puts a new spin on an old theme in educational illustrations: teaching children with paintings or wall charts.  The gigantic picture book is a free-standing gallery whose pages can be explored by any number of children.  Dominating the composition is the mother holding a baby on her shoulder to whom she points out (and presumably explains) different images.   Another of her toddlers tugs at her skirt, anxious for his turn to begin.

Cotsen 10986

The interplay between the animals and the humans in Alexander Pock’s cover is deliciously complicated.   The family is standing with their backs to the viewer as they watch a program of short subjects posted to the right.   A natty fox is pointing to one currently on display–a fox chasing a boy caught out in a lie–but it’s unclear if it’s a magic lantern show, a moving panorama or a film.  The chimpanzee in the hat tries to catch the eye of the boy next to him, hoping for a hand-out.  The bear and eagle in the niches above the standing figures look over their heads, but the viewer has no idea what they are see in the distance to the right.

Cotsen 43278.

The children’s heads are literally bursting through a map of the 1889 Paris Exposition universelle, which they will “tour” via the picture book.  The Tour Eiffel (unfinished at the event’s opening) marked the entrance to the spectacle and is likewise the gateway into this illustrated account of the shows that were on display inside.  Of course in the plates, the brother and sister are accompanied by their chic maman, but the cover holds out the liberating prospect of wandering around on their own.

There are plenty more where these bindings came from–and some of the best of the best will be illustrated in the Cotsen catalogue when it comes out at the end of this year.

4 thoughts on “Big Bold Bindings on 19th-Century Picture Books

  1. We all love writing for the blog and we hope our enthusiasm is infections. Thank YOU for being a loyal reader.

  2. This one is so interesting, I can’t wait to see the catalog.
    I have been getting these posts for years but now that I am retired I’m going back and rereading them. Thank you for all of your posts.

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