A cloth binding?

Let me present my latest find: M. Dupont, Ou La Jeune Fille Et Sa Bonne by Charles Paul De Kock (Paris, 1835). The book is an octavo, printed on paper; with tipped endleaves formed from single folds of white paper; multi-section sewn on three recessed cords; rounded and backed; with cut edges and without endbands. Importantly, it is bound ‘in-boards’ – the three cord supports are laced into millboards and it’s covered in green embossed book-cloth with a natural hollow back.


The date of this book is significant as it falls just after two important events in the history of European bookbinding; 1821 and 1832.[1]  The first date marks the introduction of book-cloth by Archibald Leighton; his starched calico didn’t strike through or adversely distort when pasted out, making it suitable for covering books. The first book-cloths were rather functional but soon the trend was towards more decorative affects that often completely hid the weave of the threads – like the example here. The second date signifies the first mass-produced case binding.[2]  This is arguably the most transformative event in the manufacture of books since Guttenberg’s printing press. This significance is described here by Lionel Darley…

“As is the way of machines, the Arming Press imposed conditions. Before the spine of a cover could enter the narrow gap between platen and bed of the machine, the binder had to make a case separate from the book. For the first time in the long history of binding the sacrosanct practice of lacing-on boards had to be abandoned. In 1832 no self-respecting binder would have omitted this essential process in binding unless driven to it. And when driven to it he would have held his peace about so grave a transgression.”[3]

If we look again at the De Kock, we can see that the cloth was embossed before covering (rather than blocked on the book) which is indicative of early decorative book-cloths; in addition, there are three small raised bumps on the outside of each board near the joints – evidence that the boards are laced on. Therefore, without even opening this book, it’s possible to date it to the short period between the 1820s and 1830s when book-cloth came into use but before case binding replaced in-board binding in the trade. So this beautiful book represents a short yet important period in bookbinding history.

To describe this book just as a ‘cloth binding’ would seem inadequate. One could legitimately argue that there is no such thing as cloth bindings, only cloth-covered bindings! It is certainly unhelpful to conflate the structure of a binding with the covering material. It’s a bit like me describing my car as ‘white’ – yes that’s true, but it doesn’t offer you much. And certainly if you are wishing to provide any sort of serious account – I’m thinking here about bookbinders and conservators but also of librarians and archivists who are more often tasked with cataloguing – then we can do a lot more.

Of course there is a time and a place for all this, and I’m pragmatic enough to realise that ‘cloth binding’ is a useful shorthand; it was how I probably described the book when I bought it, and I’d have sounded a bit daft using my full description. But in my professional work that is how it is described![4]  There is an alternative here though; we can still keep it brief but be much more succinct. A basic description of structure plus covering material, an in-board binding covered in embossed book-clothis relatively short but provides a wealth of information and, in this scenario, would even allow you to date the book to this transitional, early 19th century period in bookbinding history.


[1] The binding appears to be contemporary to the date of publication.

[2] Hand-made case bindings existed before this date: limp vellum bindings are a type of case binding; and the German three-piece paper cases predate mass produced adhesive case bindings by nearly a century.

[3] Darley, L. (1959). Bookbinding Then & Now: A Survey of the First Hundred and Seventy-eight Years of James Burn & Company. (p. 36). London: Faber & Faber. This is one of my favourite books! It provides a wonderful account of the 19thand 20thcentury bookbinding trade in London.

[4] My full description of the book is based on the method used by Ligatus and preferred by the National Trust.

Arthur Green, Jan. 2021