Paper imitating wood, cloth imitating leather

Posted on 11th October 2023 by simonbeattie

When this book, an anthology of English poetry, was advertised for sale in 1866, it was described as being ‘very handsomely bound in walnut covers’, but it’s an illusion: the boards are in fact made from varnished papier mâché. Simon Cooke explains: ‘Notable attempts were made to stress the luxuriousness of gift books by presenting them in what was apparently wood or tortoiseshell.  Owen Jones had experimented with wooden bindings in the forties, but by the sixties there were many imitations created for a large reading public rather than an elite.  Of course, the cost of these books ensured that the material was not real: instead of wood, papier mâché was used.  Made up in large pliable sheets, the mâché was compressed, stuck onto rigid card, bevelled using a metal frame, coloured with a dark stain, patterned and varnished, most typically producing an effect of polished mahogany which was finished off with an impressed gilt pattern.  As was usual with gift books generally, production was a mixture of man and machine, with the dark colours applied by hand but the rest of it passing through an industrial process.  Good examples are Golden Leaves (1865) and The Book of Gems (1868); both have an impressive sturdiness, with a furniture-like hardness to the boards, but they are, nevertheless, purely ephemeral pieces, the product of illusionism. ‘The binding’s luxurious effect is belied by the fact that it is made out of pulped paper bound together by an industrial gum.  The finishing is created by applying a dark stain and a thick varnish or lacquer.  The end product is remarkably durable; protected from the air by the lacquering, the boards are as hard as wood.  Like many others of its type, the book is an accomplished piece of illusionism, in which even the spine is fake: pretending to be leather, it is really burnished cloth.  Such publications were intended, in modern British slang, to be “classy”; designed to express cultural capital, they sat impressively on the “brown furniture” bookcases that were popular at the time of issue’ (‘The Aesthetics and Economics of Novelty Bindings’,

For more details of this, and other books I shall be bringing to the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair later this month, see my e-list Paper, cloth, silk.

Posted in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *