The introduction of the first mass produced, embossed, starched fabric for covering books is generally attributed to Archibald Leighton in the 1820s. The development of book-cloth was a catalyst for the movement away from in-board binding towards a case bound structure and the term ‘cloth binding’ has now become almost synonymous with case binding. However, there was a trend in English bookbinding for covering books in cloth that predates mass produced book-cloth by some fifty years. A coarse brown cloth, or canvas, started to be used on cheaper books, and in particular school books, from the early 1770s. It’s thought that the use of canvas as a covering was quite common, but few examples now survive.
I recently bought a copy of Aesop’s Fables (1783) which appears to be a really good example of a ‘canvas binding’. It’s a small (H:161mm W:110mm) school book in Greek and Latin; there is also a pleasing inscription in iron-gall ink across the entire right (back) board that provides some nice evidence of its ownership and likely use for study.
For anyone studying the history of bookbinding, A History of English Craft bookbinding Technique by Bernard C. Middleton is never a bad starting point. So I was delighted when I read the entry Canvas Bindings to find Bernard describe “An example in my possession, on a 1789 edition of Aesop’s Fables in Greek and Latin” My copy is printed six years earlier but is otherwise identical: it’s stabbed (rather than sewn) on two tawed thongs laced into thin rope boards; it’s rounded but not backed with no spine linings; and is covered in-boards (therefore not a case) in canvas. I also agree with Bernard that “The appearance of the material is not altogether unpleasing to my eye”, though apparently “it did not find favour at the time for comparatively few examples are known.”
The book was described by the seller as in ‘very poor condition’; the paste downs are lifting and the turn-ins are not square. However, the text-block is clean and without tears, the leaves are all held in place securely and the covering canvas is strong without any damage at the joints or caps; so I certainly wouldn’t describe the book as ‘very poor condition’. I believe what has happened is that condition has been confused with quality. The person describing the book may not have been aware of its significance, they saw a drab looking book and assumed it was of little value.
 Middleton, Bernard. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. 4th rev. ed. New Castle, DE; London: Oak Knoll Press; The British Library, 1978. (or any later edition) p.132
Arthur Green, Sept. 2022