Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 110
February 1997

Remarks Addressed To Members Of The Guild Of Bookworkers By Thomas Lange Curator Of Rare Books Huntington Library
October 17,1996

I would like to address you briefly this morning on American bindings, but first let me tell you a bit about how we acquired our collections of bindings. With some embarrassment, I cannot say we are a center for the study of bookbindings, but that is because we have not publicized our holdings well enough. I hope to change that.

We never systematically set out to collect works in the history of bookbinding, but a very important historical feature of the way in which our collections were put together is that Henry Huntington did not merely collect books, he collected collections of books, which each often contained thousands of books.

Our finest bindings were added to the collection almost incidentally, since they came to us on early printed books acquired primarily for their texts. Our bindings on incunabula, for instance, are of great importance for the study of early binding, since for more than 70 years our policy of repair and restoration has been one of benign neglect, to leave original bindings intact, boxing them when condition - either good or bad - has merited it. Since, in most institutions incunabula have been rebound, it is noteworthy that we have a collection of perhaps 2,000 incunabula in early or original bindings, some splendidly preserved and perfectly intact, but others satisfactorily worn, so that their essential binding structure is revealed and can easily and without damage be studied. Where most collectors have made sure their collections of bindings are perfectly - often splendidly - re-bound, we have been conservative conservators, retaining the best, most original and most useful characteristics through preservation rather than conservation.

The majority of our English books printed between 1475 and 1640 have been rebound, many in the elaborate morocco dresses applied by collectors in the 19th century, for whom a book in original vellum or plain calf was an embarrassment. Today's curators can either smile wanly at this mind-set, or cry. But the fact is clear: throughout the history of book collecting, beautifully bound books in morocco were worth more than books in original bindings.

Among our holdings we have an important archive of 20th century fine bookbindings that document this trend in America, the books forwarded and finished by Leon Maillard of the Club Bindery. Behind me you have been watching a series of photographs of the Club Bindery at work, enlargements of which you can also see in the Book Conservation Laboratory, which you will also be touring today. Be sure to look for these wonderful images and to study them closely, for they are an important part of the early American binding history. And, although I will be telling you a bit about the Club Bindery, this tale is ultimately one of five binderies, not just one.

I have brought out for your enjoyment a group of Club bindings, largely acquired by Henry Huntington from the books sold by Robert Hoe in 1911. From them you can see the wide range of the binder's and bindery's craft and vision. It's perfectly safe to say that fine binding in America was at a low in the last half of the 19th century when compared with the European - and especially French and English - binders such as Marius Michel, Trautz, Bauzonnet, Capé, Bedford, Zaehnsdorf and Riviere. The American standards were certainly lower, probably in large part because there were fewer American collectors of rare books, and their expectations were lower. Binding served a utilitarian purpose throughout the history of this country, and the need had not yet arisen for a large and competitive fine binding component in the marketplace. Since they started so late, book collectors in America were less sophisticated than their European counterparts, and they valued the rough-and-ready American sheep and calf bindings for their function, not their form. There was little need for binders skilled in super-extra forwarding and finishing, with highly-developed tooling and design skills, and for binders interested in retrospective styles. New York's Grolier Club, then as now, often the arbiter of taste for bookish matters, didn't have its first exhibition of bindings until 1886, at which only 10% of the bindings shown were American. This all changed by century's end, when various book clubs in the East and middle-west sprang up to cater to the newly-developed American collector and Gentleman, where new money and improvements in travel made rare books more available and socially more interesting. All these elements came together in the 1890's, and led to the founding of the Club Bindery, in New York City.

Robert Hoe, the printing equipment manufacturer, deserves full credit for the establishment of the Club Bindery and its long survival, and the Hoe collection of rare books best documented the bindery's productions. With a plan to set up a fine bindery, thirteen members of the Grolier Club pooled $5,000, with which seed money they acquired equipment and supplies from France, rented workspace in downtown New York, hired two binders, both English, and set up to bind books for these only 13 share-holders. To suggest how odd this arrangement was, it was anticipated that these 13 would require enough private binding work to keep the business afloat by themselves. This was a problem, since the quality of this new bindery's work was not sufficiently high. Nor was it much better after a French binder, Henri Hardy, was added to the staff. For instance, at a Grolier Club exhibition in 1897, a newspaper review described Club bindings as "pretty" and "appropriate"; this was the most lukewarm of praise for what was touted as the finest working bindery in this country. So, finally, Robert Hoe sought out the expertise of a Parisian binder, Leon Maillard, widely recognized as the finest finisher of his generation. And in France, that was truly saying something. He was moody, independent and sullen, but a study of his superb finishing work encouraged Hoe to bring him to America to run the Club Bindery, where he was soon surrounded with an entire fleet of ten workers. It is ironic that a bindery set up to offer the finest of American binding was staffed by ten workers, seven of whom were from Europe.

After struggling with, at best, mediocre output for 8 years, matters finally improved; by 1902 all operations of bindings were done in-house, including forwarding, finishing and edge-gilding. And as it evolved, the work of the bindery was nothing short of superb, as these two dozen books here testify. You will see by them how extraordinarily versatile was Leon Maillard, and how he successfully used a wide variety of binding materials, from watered silk to French crushed pebble-morocco, from old brocade to the finest calf. The tooling on these books is particularly fine, and I defy you to find a single misstep anywhere among these bindings. Of, course, you're all going to look for them now, so I may have to eat my words. But, somehow I don't think so... I would also like you to particularly note the diverse styles of design, the superb imitations of earlier binding styles, and the appropriateness of the designs to the book size and shape. All point to someone with a keen and instinctive understanding of the book as physical object.

Do you remember that I identified Robert Hoe as the founder of the bindery? He was also its savior. After some time it became clear that the bindery could not work only for the 13 founders, and the doors were opened to outside work. Binding costs seem positively ridiculous by today's standards, but were quite high by those of nearly a hundred years ago: a typical full morocco super-extra binding cost about $40 from the Club Bindery in the early years of this century. It became clear that because the Club's fine bindings were never mass-produced, were labor-intensive, and costs in New York ever-increasing, that the Bindery began to lose money in considerable amounts. Hoe again stood in, supporting it with his own money as long as he could; the bindery finally closed its doors in 1909. The Club Bindery tools were sold to James Macdonald of New York, and ended up at the Conservation Laboratory of the New York Public Library, where they have been recently resurrected and refurbished. The Rowfant Club of Cleveland, badly in need of fine binders, moved the staff - but not the equipment - to that city, where the Rowfant Bindery, as it became known, continued to struggle along for only four more years. After the Rowfant Bindery closed, the staff formed their own Book-lover's Bindery in beautiful downtown Cleveland, and struggled along for four more difficult years. Finally, in 1917, the publisher Frank Doubleday brought the tattered remains of the binders back to New York, where The French Binders - that was the name of the bindery, not a description - continued for some years.

As in any art form, the best appreciation and understanding of a bindery can be seen in its output, which I show you here. These two dozen books are selected, without any particular effort, from the hundreds of Club Bindery books in our collection, acquired by Mr. Huntington at the Robert Hoe sale in 1911. It is clear that Hoe's financial support was returned to him in binding work. I want you to particularly note that they are in condition as pristine as the day they were made, which is a rarity among fine bindings. I invite you to look, but please don't touch; I'll be pleased to show you any details or individual details, or answer any questions.