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.

Marks in Books 7: Home Repairs to Children’s Books nearly Read to Death

Cotsen 5610, copy 2.

This copy of The Toy-Shop is a good example of a book that has almost been read to death.  Who was responsible?  It’s natural to pin the blame for the book’s poor condition on the owners who wrote their names in it.  But H. and John Beague were probably just two in a succession of owners.  It’s possible that the damage was done by one of the owners who didn’t identify him or herself or whoever scribbled in pencil throughout the book–possibly as late as the nineteenth century.  Maybe it was more than one bad actor.The binding of the The Toy Shop should be a wreck, but the Dutch gilt paper over boards is in better shape than the text. Really well read copies of eighteenth-century juveniles bound this way often have naked spines, exposing the stitched signatures below.  Where the paper covering the spine is torn away, you can see how thin it is..

Front board and oversewn spine of Cotsen 5505.

Some young readers actually cared enough about their books to reinforce the bindings, but there’s no way of knowing whether it was the owner or a kind sister or mother who stopped what they were doing and repaired the book.  This binding is so worn that it’s impossible to tell what the original color of the paper covering the boards was.  The spine is completely gone, although some of the original stitching holding the two boards together is still intact.  Someone did a rough-and-ready job of securing them so they wouldn’t fall off.  The repair is not neat or precise, but the collection of then popular fairy tales by Mme. D’Aulnoy and others can still be opened and read.

The book is a 1790 reprint of a title issued nearly twenty years before.  The engraver’s signature is long gone and the images are so worn that they have been touched up in places. On the inside there have been additional repairs to keep the pages from falling out.

Cotsen 5505.

Cotsen 5505.

The first owners of Cotsen 5505 that can be traced lived in the middle of the nineteenth century.  In 1854 this copy of Mother Bunch’s Tales was signed by  G. M. Richmond  (George Martin Richmond, a businessman in Providence, Rhode Island) and he gave it to his adult daughter Ellen in 1857.  Nearly twenty years later Ellen presented it to her married daughter Alice.   Did one of them sew the boards back on or had that been done long before it came into the family?  There must be a story about this book, but it is impossible to tell from the information Jill Shefrin discovered in the course of researching the people who owned Cotsen’s collection of Newbery juveniles.The third example below must have been read until the boards had fallen off, but someone cared enough about it to oversew the binding with stout thread with an interlocking stitch.   Other eighteenth-century children’s books in the collection have been repaired the same way, although I don’t have a list of them.

Front board and spine of Cotsen 25150.

.You can get a glimpse of the stitching on the inside as well.

Cotsen 25150.

This Mother Goose’s Tales belonged at one time to a Mary Barrett and we know from the number of books surviving with her signature that she must have had a pretty large nursery library.  You can see that the pages are in danger of coming detached from the text block and that someone has neatly pinned them together near the gutter. Other groups of pages have been treated the same way.  Pinning pages is another homemade repair I’ve seen more than once, but I have no idea how to date or localize the pins.  I assume they are too short to have been the kind of pins women used to attach pieces of their clothing together.  If only I could find a passage in some eighteenth-century children’s book that describes an eager little reader using her needle to fix up an old favorite…