Fields of Gold

American Decorated Trade Bindings and Their Designers, 1890–1915
Date and Time
RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection
Image Gallery

In 1906 appeared a collection of essays called The Building of a Book in which various experts wrote about their particular book-making specialties. One of these experts was the trade binding designer Amy Richards; her contribution was entitled simply “Cover Designing” and, in a matter-of-fact way, she described the steps necessary to produce a decorated binding for a book. The intention was marketing, but the results were often works of art.

Amy Richards, and designers like her, flourished during a unique period in the history of trade binding that roughly spanned the years from 1890 to 1915. The designs of that period are simpler and more fluid than their predecessors and were made in reaction to the decorative excesses of the Victorian Age. Book covers which had seemed extraordinary in the 1870s became stale and debased in the 1880s, as excesses of ornament were piled one on top of another until many Victorian bindings finally toppled of their own decorative weight. But out of the rubble came innovation. During the 1890s, designers abroad and in America took the same materials – cloth, gold foil, and colored inks – and began to fashion book covers that were characterized by imagination and daring. Their strokes were broad and full of life – as far from the overwrought rigidity of the past as it was possible to get. But this creative period came to an end all too soon; by 1920 the decorated binding was nearly extinct, replaced by the cheaper, printed dust jacket.

Almost one hundred years later, we look back at that brief, golden age and can only marvel at the extraordinary variety of designs produced. This exhibition traces the history of those twenty-five years during which gifted artisans labored to create appealing covers. Many of these covers made lavish use of gold that was stamped with dies so precise it was possible to achieve decorative effects that today would be far too expensive even to contemplate. Most of the designers were quickly forgotten, while others went on to achieve a measure of fame in some other field of book-making. Scholars are slowly digging out information on scores of cover designers (many of them women), frequently remembered only by the initials or monograms ingeniously worked into their designs. At the same time, historians of bookbinding technology are documenting the elaborate die-making and stamping processes.

The covers on view here are largely drawn from the David Pankow Collection of Trade Bindings, recently donated to the Cary Collection. The rest came from holdings already in in the library. Taken together, they form an important resource for students of graphic design history. “The designing of book covers,” wrote Amy Richards, “is a minor art, but since there is a constant demand for ornamented covers, the more taste and skill that can be devoted to the making of them, the better.”

–David Pankow, Curator