Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Ace up a Designer's Sleeve: Cloth Color part 1

For our next two posts, let’s talk about color.  Cloth color.  It’s one of the three inescapable features of trade bindings from their beginnings in 1820s England through the 1920s, and one of two that continue to this day.  The other two are cloth graining, which was seldom done after the 1910s (I’d say never but there might be some holdovers), and stamping, which today is almost completely reduced to title, author and publisher lettering on the spine.  Stamping on the covers is a topic which comes up in every post; cloth graining has made appearances in past posts and is will be covered in more detail in the future.



I’ll be breaking down my remarks on color into two parts:  in this first I’ll be considering it in the context of designs on several individual titles and how color alone can vary the impact of a design.  In a later post we’ll look at the use of cloth color in designs for “series” or “editions,” that is, series of books by individual authors with different designs on each volume, as well as series with identical designs for different titles.  In both, most examples will be taken from the work of Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) who frequently appears in this blog.(1)  She is one of the best (many would say the best) cover designer of the late 19th and early 20th century, and is certainly one of the most collected, thanks to the work of Charles Gullans and John Espey. (2)





Let’s start with a probably long-overdue glance at the term “trade binding.”  Trade binding is another term for edition binding, in which the bindings are identical, made by or for a publisher or distributor, are generally in hard covers, and produced using automation (3).   You might encounter a number of variations of “trade binding” which appears in the title of our blog:  case binding, edition binding, and wholesale trade binding.  If you’d like to explore short definitions of these terms I wholeheartedly recommend Matt Roberts and Don Etherington’s Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books:  a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, which is available online.  For our purposes, an understanding of the term “case binding” is sufficient. 

Case binding is a method of bookbinding where the case (the book covers) are made separately from the text block.  The text block is then glued to the book’s cover using the endpapers to attach the two.  Paperbacks are made in a similar way, except the back edges of the text block are glued to the spine of the paper covers, called “adhesive binding.”  Case binding materials can be almost anything:  paper, wood, leather, flexible or stiff cardboard, or cloth.  Several critical factors in the rise and continued use of case binding are 1) they are made separately from the “book” (i.e. text); 2) they can be made very quickly through mechanization of the various processes involved; 3) they can be made in large quantities; 4) they are identical.  All of these factors bring down the cost of book production and enable attractive products (sometimes) to be made quickly and in large numbers, critical to meeting the increasing demand for reading materials in the 19th century and after.(4)    


Embossing press used to stamp designs on case bindings


Cutaway view of the Harper establishment in the third quarter of the 19th century


The binding operation on the 6th floor at Harpers, with detail below






Now that we’re all case binding masters let’s get back to color.






We’ve looked at cloth color in the past:  

in December 2016, with Drifted In


In March of last year, with The Legatee


And in February of 2016, with Heart’s Desire

In all three cases the choice of cloth color was not random (“we’ve got a lot of this yellowish-brown cloth on hand; let’s use some of that up”).  Rather, the cloth color was a conscious choice which served several purposes.  The color helps to establish a mood on each of these covers, whether it’s a feeling of cold and oppressive weather for Drifted In, the dramatic darkness of The Legatee, or the dry, open western desert on Heart’s Desire.  The cloth color is also incorporated as part of the design.  We can see this in the snowflakes and window details on Drifted In’s cover, The Legatee’s silhouetted branches, and the desert ground the stagecoach crosses on Heart’s Desire.  The color was also used to grab a shopper’s attention, even if a bookseller shelved his wares spine out (although one suspects that many, if not most, covers were not visible as most books were issued with dust jackets). 


After our long detour we return to Margaret Armstrong.  Armstrong's total output was at least 314 covers according to Gullans and Espey's checklist (more have been discovered since its publication), of which nearly half, 145 titles, were designed for Scribner, with Putnam coming in a distant second with 42 titles.  Only three Armstrong designs were for Houghton, Mifflin, which is not surprising as Sarah Wyman Whitman provided most of their cover designs until 1899.  Nevertheless, it is one of these three that we’ll feature:   John Greenleaf Whittier’s The Tent on the Beach (1899).  It is one of Margaret Armstrong’s many masterpieces, and is ideal as an exemplar of what can be done with only one color, gold, in addition to the color of the cloth. 




Gullans and Espey devote a full page to this design and describe it in this way

“Between side panels, each with marine ornaments of a crab at the base and cockle shells alongside the stem of an iris in full bloom, the design is strongly banded in recessive parallel lines, thick and widely spaced at the bottom, and diminishing in height and distance between them as they rise toward the top.  The illusion which is created of recession and distance from the front to the back by the incoming waves of the tide is powerful and is achieved without invoking the rules of perspective; consequently the flat surface of the cover is not broken.  The device is one well known from Impressionist paintings and graphic works, both in Europe and America, and is in keeping with the aesthetic that regarded the flatness of the canvas surface as inviolable.”

Indeed.  They also reference Laurie W. Crichton’s Book Decoration in America, 1890-1910, the catalog of an important exhibition at Williams College in 1979, and her “impenetrable discussion” of the cover:

“Armstrong’s binding decoration for The Tent on the Beach … is a study in geometric progression and mathematical ratios, a blending of disparate natural forms whose curved and horizontal lines form bands that gradually change in weight from bottom to top and in color from bright gold to dark blue.  Unlike most of her decorations, this essentially asymmetrical binding was designed to be viewed along a vertical rather than a horizontal line, though the balanced, nearly identical side panels may be the first element noticed.  Below the title lettering wavy, widening horizontal bands of gold against a dark blue cloth ground subtly evoke the rolling tide.  In the side panels, crabs and scallop shells flank the waves to complete the reference to the seashore.” (5)

Impenetrably true.  The cover also appeared in an influential exhibition at Harvard’s Houghton Library.  The author of the exhibition catalog, Nancy Finlay, considers Armstrong’s design to be

“… one of her most striking and beautiful compositions.  The almost hieratic pattern of symmetrically placed irises with little crabs at their roots and a stylized wave motif between them is stamped in low relief in gold on green cloth.  The color combination is typical of the publications of Houghton Mifflin and Company and particularly characteristic of their favorite designer, Sarah Wyman Whitman.” (6)

What can I add to that?  We can quibble with some of the description, such as whether the shells are cockles or scallops (I think the latter), or just how hieratic the design is, or what is in high relief and what is not (the cloth between the gold waves is actually in relief; the only gold features in relief are the embossed crabs).  And are the gold “waves” (or tops of waves) “diminishing in height and distance between them as they rise toward the top,” or is the distance between them growing?  But there’s no question that the design produces strong and favorable reactions.  Gullans and Espey mention that the title was issued in four cloth colors in their description, and five in the checklist entry:  brown, blue, dark blue-green, olive green, or red.  The design is not illustrated in their checklist, however, and both Crighton and Finlay, alas, reproduce the design only in black and white.  I have not seen a copy in “blue” cloth and don’t know if it’s dark, medium, or light blue (booksellers’ descriptions are certainly not clear on this), but we can take a look at the other colors.

























Gullans and Espey presumably saw all color variations and pronounced the book “astonishing.”  Nancy Finlay described the design on green cloth as “one of her most striking and beautiful compositions.”  Laurie Crichton considered a copy on dark blue cloth to be “a study in geometric progression and mathematical ratios.”  The subtlety and complexity of the design are enhanced by Armstrong’s use of three kinds of gold stamping:  gloss, matte, and embossed, with the background all in matte, the flowers, shells, and lettering in gloss, and the two embossed crabs. 




I find myself most attracted to the greenish blue cloth copy in the lower right, but I also very much like the brown and red cloth copies and am not at all adverse to the green.  Do you have a favorite?--that’s what comments are for!  The point being that they are all attractive and that different purchasers might be drawn to one over another, with their opinion perhaps changing over time.  Publishers knew this, of course, and could issue a book in a variety of formats (paper wrappers, cloth, leather) or cloth colors. 


Or perhaps there is a deeper bibliographical significance to variant cloth colors; perhaps they indicate a conscious decision on the publisher’s part to re-issue a title in new dress while retaining a familiar design.  A third possibility is that cloth color could simply indicate that the publisher/bookbinder was temporarily or permanently out of a certain cloth color.  A complete edition of a book was usually bound over time, it being easier and cheaper to store printed sheets than bound books.  So if 1,000 copies of a novel were printed, the publisher might only bind 500 books for the initial issue.  As stock diminished more copies could be bound, usually in the same color, but the cloth could come from a later lot with minor variations in color.  Books could be kept in print indefinitely in the later 1800s and into the 20th century by the use of electrotyping.  As type had always been the principle cost to a printer, this completely changed the economics of printing, as there was no need to keep a book in “standing type”; rather, electrotyped plates could be used many times, were easily stored, and allowed type to be reused immediately.(8)

Workers electrotyping "pages" of type

Although any of these three possibilities could explain the multiple cloth colors for this title, one is far more likely than the others.  John Carter (1905-1975), author and bibliographer, gave a cautionary note on using cloth color to try and establish primacy in issues or states of books: 

“It is well known that certain books were issued in different colours at the same time.  And where two bindings are identical in every respect save this, it is generally safe to assume (in default of some specific external evidence) that the variation was a deliberate one.
This practice flourished far more extensively in the United States ... A claim for priority on difference of colour only must be effectively substantiated to be acceptable.” (8)


Margaret Armstrong’s name and cover designs were by this time well known to publishers and to the public.  She began using her distinctive monogram in 1895, and by 1899 it appeared on virtually all of her books.  Its presence on a cover was a mark of distinction, and books were advertised as having a “cover design by Miss Armstrong.”  We can be almost certain that the four (or five) color variants of The Tent on the Beach were issued at the same time.  This is supported by another example of a Houghton, Mifflin publication by another classic American author:  Last Poems, by James Russell Lowell, published in 1895.




Sarah de St. Prix Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), the designer of the cover, was a Boston artist and socialite whose binding designs, chiefly for Houghton Mifflin, revolutionized the field.(9)  The bindings of the 1870s and 1880s were generally cluttered, awash in mixed styles, lettering, images, and ornamentation.  The following images contrast a typical binding from the period with Sarah Whitman's first known design from 1881, published a year before the first book.

Cuyler, Theodore L.  Golden thoughts on mother, home, and heaven. New York: E.B. Treat, 1882.  A typical binding of the period.


Whitman, who began her career as a cover designer in the early 1880s, eliminated all of this excess and replaced it with simple, elegant designs, often floral, on carefully chosen cloth.  Her distinct lettering is usually rustic and calligraphic and as recognizable as Margaret Armstrong’s.  A generation older than Armstrong and other prominent designers of the 1890s, she pioneered the role of “artist-designer” in book cover design.  She was the house designer for Houghton, Mifflin for around two decades and infrequently signed her work with the letters SW within a heart or flaming heart.
Sarah Wyman Whitman
The Queen's Twin.  Houghton, Mifflin, 1899


























Turning back to Lowell’s Last Poems, we can see all of the hallmarks of Whitman’s aesthetic.  A simple floral device in the form of a flowering bush or tree with leaves and flower petals drifting down—not a lot but more than enough to suggest the last blossoms and leaves from a beloved poet that we will have.  A dove is placed discretely in the branches and the tree seems to be rooted in a heart, a common Whitman motif.  This is also a subtle reminder that the cover is Whitman's work, as it echoes the heart in her monogram.



The stylized heart shape at the root of a floral element appears far more often than a monogram in Whitman’s designs, but it just as surely identifies her as the designer.  Another characteristic that Whitman often used is acknowledging and emphasizing the shape and structure of the book, in this case by putting a thin rule border on the cover with the rules extending to the edges of the cover and the resulting squares filled with gold.  Finally, the cover is lettered in her distinctive rustic font.  All three covers are restrained, elegant, pleasing to the eye, and eminently sellable.


We’ll end with another Margaret Armstrong design, this time for the publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  From 1896 to 1899 Armstrong created one design a year for a holiday edition of a work by Washington Irving.  In 1896 it was the two volume “Surrey edition” of Bracebridge Hall, followed in 1897 by the two volume “Tacoma edition” of Astoria.  The next year brought the “Pawnee edition” of The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, also in two volumes.  The series concluded in 1899 with Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which shared a single design and were advertised as a set.  Bracebridge Hall was issued in either dark blue or cream cloth; Astoria on cream, red, or white cloth; Captain Bonneville in either cream or dark blue cloth; and Rip van Winkle in white or red cloth, or “ooze” leather (a soft calfskin with a finish like suede).  Pictured is the Rip van Winkle, in both colors, from 1899.

































The cloth used on both copies is a coarse buckram.  On the red cloth, only the line die was used, giving us an opportunity to study the outlines of the design, with its twenty-one swirling stylized tulips, two clay pipes with their fantastically long stems intertwined with the tulip stems, lettering which takes "whimsical" to a new level, and a border of dots and rectangles.  Six tulips above and six below form an irregular cartouche for the lettering, pipes, and nine remaining tulips.  The delicacy of the lines used for the tulips contrast sharply with the much heavier lettering, pipe bowls, and border.
A closer look at the lettering.

When we turn to the copy in white buckram the design is, at first, almost unrecognizable.  The gold fades back, the tulip flowers move front and center, almost leaping out of the design, whereas on the red cloth they appeared more as a hidden picture (“how many tulips can you find?”)  There seems to be more than three colors used, and in combination with the gold, the book has a lavish appearance.  The red cloth copy looks like an engraving (as it is), whereas the white cloth copy looks like a painting.  Central to all of these impressions is the switch from red cloth to white.





















Cloth color is the cover designer’s ace up the sleeve.  It’s the designer’s not-so-secret weapon.  It can provide variety for the book purchaser; it can be subtly integrated into a design; it can make a, I won’t say cheap but thrifty publisher’s provision that only black and one color of ink can be used on a cover less of an artistic burden by allowing the designer to incorporate the cloth color into her design.  Color can establish a mood, catch and hold the eye, or show that the book’s owner is quite the sober and thoughtful fellow.  Long live colored bookcloths, in all their varied hues.

Don’t forget to visit our American Publishers Trade Bindings digital collection for cloth in all colors; and because I can’t resist, here is Irving’s Astoria (1897) in two cloth colors to close the post.












1) If you need to refresh your memory on Armstrong, Wikipedia has a short article on her under the title “Margaret Neilson Armstrong.”

2) Gullans, Charles and John Espey.  Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings: With a Checklist of her Designed Bindings and Covers. Los Angeles: UCLA, Department of Special Collections, University Research Library, 1991.  Available online.  The cover of The Tent on the Beach is not reproduced in this checklist.

3) Roberts and Etherington.  Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books. “Edition binding.”

4) Images from “Visitors’ Guide to Harper & Brothers’ Establishment,” in Harper & Brothers’ Descriptive List of Their Publications, with Trade-list Prices.  New York:  Harper, 1880. P. ix (establishment) p. xiii (the bindery) p. xiv (embossing press).  Viewed online.

5) Crichton, Laurie W.  Book Decoration in America, 1890-1910: a Guide to an Exhibition.  Williamstown, Mass.:  Chapin Library, Williams College, 1979, p. 55. 

6) Finlay, Nancy.  Artists of the Book in Boston, 1890-1910.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, The Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, 1985, p. 57. 

7) “Visitors’ Guide to Harper,” p.  vii-viii.

8) Carter, John.  Binding variants in English publishing, 1820-1900.  London: Constable, 1932 (reprinted by Oak Knoll Books, 1989), p. 82.  Carter also wrote the very useful, gently sarcastic, and quite funny ABC for Book Collectors (1951, now in its 8th edition), and, with Graham Pollard, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, a devastatingly polite and scientific exposure of the famous book collector and bibliographer, Thomas James Wise (1859-1937), as the co-forger of numerous fake literary “rarities.”

9) A great deal of information on Whitman is readily available.  Start with the Betty Smith’s article “Sarah Wyman Whitman: Brief Life of a determined artist, 1842-1904,” that appeared in the Harvard Magazine.  There is also an entry in Wikipedia, which includes the portrait reproduced above.  Finish, or better yet start, with the Boston Public Library’s amazing Flickr page, which includes 325 pictures of Whitman bindings.

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