The binding of a book describes the material that is used to make the upper (front) and lower (back) covers.  Books are bound in all manner of materials including various papers, cloths, hides and even metals to increase aesthetic appeal or durability.

Contemporary custom dictates that a book in its original binding is superior to most re-bindings that were accomplished after the fact.  The major exception to this rule is when the book has been re-bound by a noted bookbinder with historical significance in which case it is sometimes the binding rather than the book that has collectible status.

However this was not always the case.  In the Victorian age most book owners felt that any book worth keeping deserved to be rebound, usually in some form of leather to become part of your personal library.  This means books from this era (when book owners were wealthy and privileged), and earlier, have often been re-bound making the original publisher’s bindings that much rarer.

Types of Bindings

1840 classic whaling book, bound in original cloth

Original Cloth

Beginning around the 1830s, publishers began binding their books in cloth as an alternative to plain boards.  What began as a novelty and a way of advertising and differentiating their books eventually became the norm.  Book-buyers began to see cloth boards as a cheap alternative to re-binding all their own books, and the number of people re-binding books for their library began to decline.  The terms ‘original cloth’, ‘publishers cloth’, and ‘edition cloth’ all refer to publications where the original binding of the book was, and continues to be, cloth.

 

a hard cover first edition copy of The Catcher in the Rye in dust jacket

Dust Jackets

Dust jackets or dust wrappers are the paper coverings wrapped around the boards of a book.  Dust jackets began to be used regularly in the late 1800s where they were originally designed to be a disposable packaging to help protect the book until it reached its owner’s library.  The practice of disposing of dust jackets was almost universal until the 1920s when the collection of modern first editions became popular and the inclusion of the dust jacket began to be an important part of a book’s desirability. 

 

1817 copy of Pride and Prejudice, in original blue paper-covered boards

Original Boards

The original boards or covers that the publisher first bound the book in.  This usually concerns books published from around the 1700s to the 1830s when it was considered fashionable to have any book you purchased custom bound for your library.  Boards from this era are often very plain as they were meant to be disposable.  Because of this rarity, some collectors find original boards quite desirable.

 

1826 example of original wrappers

Original Wrappers

A wrapper is a board but made of paper rather than a thicker material - think of these as the precursor to modern paperbacks.  This kind of binding was most often used in the 18th century for serials, pamphlets, periodicals and other slim volumes.

 

Calf

Calf or calf hide is the most common form of leather binding. These bindings have a smooth surface with no identifiable grain. The natural color of calf hide is a light brown but can often be treated in the following ways:

Diced
Diced

A design of diamonds or squares that has been scored into the leather.
Marbled
Marbled

The leather is stained with a diluted acid to produce a swirling effect.
Mottled
Mottled

The same acid solution used in marbling is applied to the binding to produce random designs.

Paneled

A rectangular space on a cover or spine framed by gilt or lines tooled into the leather.

Polished Calf

When the leather is polished to a reflective finish.
Reversed
Reversed

When the inner side of the calf skin is facing outward.

Spanish
Spanish

Uses red and green acid dye to stain flecks of color into the binding.

Speckled
Speckled

A diluted acid mixture is used to create small dark spots, or specks, on the leather.
Tree Calf
Tree Calf

Stained by an interaction of copperas and pearl-ash to produce a dark pattern along theboards.

 

Morocco

Morocco bindings first appeared in Europe in the early 16th century. Usually dyed in strong colours, Morocco bindings are made from goatskin and appeal for their durability as well as their appearance. This type of binding was Islamic in origin but the name today holds no geographic meaning, merely referring to the fact that the binding was sourced from goatskin. The following terms are often associated with Morocco bindings:

Crushed Morroco
Crushed

The surface of the leather is flattened by some sort of pressing, rolling or ironing to the point where the surface of the cover has with no discernible grain.
Levant Morocco
Levant

A very elegant style of Morocco that has a large grain and is usually highly polished. Levant Morocco is generally considered the most elegant.
Niger Morocco
Niger

Named after its point of origin in West Africa, this leather is flexible and has a subtle grain that is achieved though rubbing.
Straight Grain Morocco
Straight-Grain

This style is achieved by moistening the skin and giving it an artificial parallel grain. This technique was popularised in late 18th and early 19th centuries.

 

Other Bindings

Cosway-Style
Cosway-Style

These bindings contain a small portrait(s) embedded in their covers.
Vellum
Vellum

Originally made from de-greased calfskin - nowadays made from lamb, goat or other skins.
Roan
Roan

A thin soft form of sheepskin used as a cheap substitute to Morocco and not seen as desirable among most collectors.
Skiver
Skiver

The cheapest form of leather used in bookbinding, can often be confused with Roan when rubbed or worn.
Metallic, Jewelled & Other Materials
Metallic, Jewelled & Other

Special editions bound with gems, metals, exotic skins or other interesting materials.

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