Thursday, August 9, 2012

Medallions on 19th-Century Bindings

Front covers of Leavitt & Allen gift books with papier-mâché medallions, 1852-1853.

I have written previously about book bindings with papier-mâché elements.  (click here to read that post.) Now, I’d like to present a particularly interesting group of books that have papier-mâché medallions attached to the leather covers.  These bindings were all published by Leavitt & Allen in the mid-1850s.  During this time, Leavitt & Allen offered thirteen inexpensive duodecimo gift book titles in the following binding styles: “morocco full gilt, $1.50; morocco antique, maché centres, $1.75; papier-mâché, elegant, each book in a case $2.50.”

Back covers of Leavitt & Allen gift books with papier-mâché medallions.
Presumably, the bookbinder purchased the “maché centres” and attached them to the front and back covers of full-leather case bindings.  All of these books have the same pattern embossed into the leather with a sunken circle in the center to accommodate the thickness of the papier-mâché medallion. The pattern was made by heating a large brass embossing plate and pressing it into the leather of the covers. This embossing plate would have been expensive to produce and thus it is no surprise that we find only one design.

Bindings with paper onlay titles, 1856-1858.
The bookbinders even continued to use the embossing plate after papier-mâché went out of style.  (It was popular for a very short time.) Instead of attaching the papier-mâché medallions, the binder glued colorful paper onlays into the sunken circle and gold-stamped the titles over them. Binders used this technique on books for other publishers, and on fiction, rather than just gift books for Leavitt & Allen.  In every case, though, the result is eye-catching, which is what publishers wanted in order to compete in a crowded market.  

Jennifer W. Rosner
Chief of Conservation

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