A book’s binding is a particularly satisfying piece of material culture. Even an unread book has been held by its owner. Like the frame of a painting, a binding can offer up valuable information about provenance and production. Also like a frame, a binding is designed to complement its contents; some do so more elegantly than others. Drawing from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection, this exhibit examines some methods of binding books and some of the broader significance of particular materials and styles.
Books have been bound in jewel-encrusted precious metals and in human skin. More commonly, they have been bound in leather affixed to wooden boards; wrappers made from parchment or paper; and decorative paper or cloth over paste-paper boards. The medium may change, but “of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
A binding can serve as a preservation measure, a means of organization, a sign of ownership, a vehicle for conspicuous consumption, or a sales pitch for the text it contains. From the perspective of cultural history, bookbindings can help us observe changes in style and changes in readers’ relationships with books. They are interesting points of entry to a library collection: what can we learn from a closed book?
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The binding is contemporary red goatskin with green goatskin onlay, tooled in gold. Don Etherington & Matt T. Roberts write, “at one time the most…
In the years following the introduction of printing, books were rarely bound at the same time as they were printed. Printed pages left the printer’s…
The fad for tree calf, or tree marble, is an excellent example of the fleeting nature of style. For about...
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A brightly-colored publisher's binding.
A gift book with gilt and silver decoration.
A publisher's binding with a gilt image of pears.
A publisher's binding with an image of a window garden.
A guidebook for travelers in England.