As leisure time increased for English ladies in the 18th-19th centuries, so did the variety of genteel pastimes. In addition to traditional music and needlework, ladies industriously painted watercolors, collected and catalogued natural specimens, decorated porcelain, and made shell-covered grottoes in their gardens. This, however, was one new to me: recovering dilapidated books with printed cloth.
Called "Cottonian Bindings", the process is exactly what it sounds like. A worn book is covered with a remnant of printed cotton fabric, with the title and the author's name neatly hand-lettered on a paper label pasted to the spine. It seems to have been a way of giving new life to a battered book, a thrifty craft much like patchwork quilt-tops.
The name "cottonian bindings" is closely connected to the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843), whose extensive private library contained as many as 1400 books bound in this manner by his daughters and friends. Southey's friend and fellow-poet William Wordsworth also had books with cottonian bindings. Some were believed to have been bound by his sister Dorothy Wordsworth, while another example, believed to be the handiwork of his wife Mary, is now in the British Library. Few others survive today.
The three books, above, are thought to have been bound by Dorothy Wordsworth for her brother and for Southey. Earlier this week, they were sold at auction for £5800, a sum that would have no doubt astonished both Dorothy and her brother. Not bad for three old books recovered at home!
Three books with cottonian bindings, believed to be bound by Dorothy Wordsworth, c 1820. Photograph via Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.