Victorian Book Binding

Victorian Book Binding

With such a huge collection of Victorian books at our fingertips, we wanted to draw attention to all the amazing cover designs that feature throughout our History Room here at Gladstone’s Library. So this month’s History Room display has been curated by Charlotte from the Graduate Work Experience programme, who decided to pick out the most eye-catching designs to display, and researched into the history of book design throughout the Victorian period. Here is what she found…

By the 1850s the urban population of the UK increased dramatically in number. With this came higher levels of education in the public and thus a need for accessible and affordable reading material [1]. Alongside this the Industrial Revolution gave access to mass production and new machinery. This led to a wide range of book designs that evolved from decade to decade as new techniques were mastered and trends developed.

Leather binding was the most popular choice for books at the beginning of the century, providing the wealthy with luxurious and impressive-looking books. These however were too expensive for the general public. Cloth was therefore brought in as a cheaper alternative. It was durable and, with the invention of the arming press, could look just as eye-catching as the leather equivalents [2]. Binders would often experiment with patterns to create a leather look on the cloth, and as the century passed more colours and designs were implemented to decorate the covers and spines.


WEG R 37 WAR – Poems Dramatic and Lyrical by John Leicester Warren, London 1893

The art of covering a book in cloth was invented in the early 1820s. It was the most widely used material for covers and was a much cheaper alternative to leather. The cloth came in many colours and designs, often with patterns to replicate the leather look.

Gold leafing

WEG M 46.4 ORO – The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847 by John O’Rourke, Dublin 1874

Gold detailing was achieved by first creating ‘blind’ impressions in the book to create the design. A glair would then be added with vinegar/water and oil before a layer of gold leaf was added. Heated brass dies were used to create blocking and embossing. 

Not only is this a beautiful example of leather binding, but it showcases well how gold leafing was often paired with colours such as black, red, and blue; which became popular colours during the later half of the century. This book also features silk/taffeta on the end pages - the use of this material was not only for luxury purposes but also to create a watery effect on the covers. 


WEG M 34. 9 BLA – A Short Race Well Done, 1880

The ‘glazed’ design was popular in Scotland and was often applied to souvenir books. They featured glazed or varnished wooden boards attached to a cloth spine. The pages were sewn in as opposed to glued, and a photograph would be printed on the cover. The fern pattern (Fernware) is one of many Scottish motifs that showed up on these books [3].


[1] A History of Printing in Britain by Colin Clair (Oxford, 1966) pp. 206

[2] Victorian Publishers’ Bindings by Douglas Ball (The Library Association, London, 1985)

[3] The Aesthetics and Economics of Novelty Bindings by Simon Cooke (2015)

Victorian Book Binding is on display in our History Room throughout August 2018. To view as a visitor, join one of our daily Glimpses at 12pm, 2pm or 4pm.


Food for Thought

Food for thought

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