Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 114
October 1997


Marianne Tidcombe. Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press and London: The British Library, 1996. 240pp, 32 color plates and over 100 b&w photographs. $58. isbn 1-8847-23fl (Oak Knoll, 414 Delaware Street, New Castle, DE 19720).

Reviewed by Priscilla Spitler.

Binding historian Marianne Tidcombe modestly prefaces her book as "a short general survey giving a brief account of the lives and works of women who started binding before the First World War." This is understatement. This important new book compiles extensive research on a 40 year period starting in the late 19th century during which women began to be recognized for their contributions to design and technique in a by then centuries old craft.

The book focuses primarily on British women binders from 1880 to 1920. A brief historical overview, limited by scarce documentation, surveys women working in past centuries in continental Europe and the U.S. Women no doubt had their part in binding from the earliest times, Tidcombe speculates, "because women have used needle and thread from time immemorial." Discussion of women binders outside Great Britain is summarized in Tidcombe's final chapter, "America and Elsewhere Abroad."

During most of the 19th century, British bookbinding was a trade to which only boys were allowed to apprentice. Women were permitted to work at low wages in the binderies folding, mending, and sewing but were not able to advance. As mechanization increased, more women were employed in all parts of the country and by 1891 women in the trade outnumbered men three to two. Male binders professionals who, reasonably, felt their livelihood was threatened resented this. Unions formed by male workers placed restrictions on women, and while female workers also attempted to form unions, it was only in 1918 that a union included both qualified men and women. This chapter on women in trade binding breaks down informatively the division of labor and the operations of a 19th century English bindery.

The revival of the handicrafts late in the 19th century inspired upper class women to learn the craft of bookbinding. They were encouraged by established London binding firms - Zaehnsdorf's and Sangorski and Sutcliffe - and studied with well-known binders like Cobden-Sanderson and Douglas Cockerell. Their books were shown at international arts and crafts exhibitions such as the Victorian Era Exhibition held in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and it became popular to purchase a book designed or bound by a woman. The Victorian Era Exhibition prompted London bookseller Karl Westlake to form The Guild of Women Book Binders workshop as a business venture.

The Guild gave amateur binders an opportunity to train with employed male binders and created an outlet for sale of their bindings. Tidcombe describes Westlake as a "tragi-comic" character of questionable business honesty, but nonetheless, she regards the work produced by the numerous women at the Hampstead bindery, and by other women binding during this period, as competent in design. These women also advanced decorative techniques in embroidered binding, vellum and vellucent painted binding, and metal worked and modeled leather. Tidcombe is careful to note that some of these bindings, though designed by women, were most likely executed by male professionals.

The technical descriptions of methods used by the women to create modeled leather bindings add another dimension to the importance of this book, as does the distinction between painted vellum and vellucent bindings (one painted above, the other under), neither to be confused with the trade term "vellum" used to mean the making of account books. English binding terminology is used throughout the book, and American readers may find they need to attend closely to words that seem familiar.

Tidcombe devotes a chapter to each of three English women binders whom Tidcombe considers the first professionals of their gender. Each of them produced a body of fine work. Sarah Prideaux was the first well-known woman designer, teacher, and binding historian, although it is questionable whether she fully executed her bindings. Katharine Adams, with a 50-year career, was well- respected even among her male peers as a designer and fine hand binder. Sybil Pye, though self-taught, is considered one of the first modern design binders. An additional special feature of the book is comprehensive appendices which picture unique finishing tools used by these women as well as complete lists of all bindings they are known to have produced.

The appendices and notes comprise 46 pages, in fact, approximately a fifth of the book. They include another list of the bindings of one of Prideaux's students, Elizabeth McColl; lists of the women associated with The Guild of Women Binders; and even a list of women binders not mentioned in the text! The notes are of interest as one reads through the text and some lend themselves as spin-offs for personal study. The book's only fault, perhaps, is in offering so much information that it is difficult to assimilate when the book is read from start to finish. The clean book design by Peter Guy, however, and the organization of the material, supported by numerous well-placed black and white photographs and 32 color plates, help make it easier to absorb and refer back to specific topics. This book is destined to become a standard reference on the women in bookbinding as well as a point of departure for further investigations on the subject.

Private lessons were the only way women had to learn the craft, and toward the end of the book, Tidcombe emphasizes that the work of many women binders of this era is not necessarily of high standard. Outside Britain, many women were taught by women who were still students themselves, and many were geographically removed from centers of bookbinding activity and missed criticism essential in developing good skills. American women who were fortunate to study with Cobden-Sanderson at his Doves Bindery in London are mentioned in this last chapter - including Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff, Emily Preston, and Ellen Gates Starr. Other American women binders active at this time - such as Mary Crease Sears and Agnes St. John of Boston, Edith Diehl of New York, and Octavia Holden of San Francisco - are described briefly. The text closes rather abruptly with Tidcombe discrediting the popular belief that Cobden-Sanderson had an overwhelming influence in the U.S. Tidcombe notes that of the 49 members of the Guild of Book Workers in 1907, only six were students of the Doves Bindery. Many Americans also had lessons in France and elsewhere.

Women Bookbinders is written with a clear, unromantic, matter-of-fact objectivity. The author claims the book is not a work of criticism, but she offers the occasional critical comment to be expected from someone as knowledgeable as she is about binding from this period. What Tidcombe has accomplished, however, is a handsome publication which fills a major void in the history of bookbinding.