Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Romantic-Era Bibliocrafting? Dorothy Wordsworth's "Cottonian Bindings", c 1820

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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.


Regencyresearcher said...

Do you know the titles of the books?
I wonder if all the books were battered, or if they could have been bought in boards and covered at home rather than sending to a bindery. Cotton would have been cheaper than even the calf binding. Many books were sold in boards to be covered by the purchaser,

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The titles are:
"Some Account of the Life and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio"
"The Life and Errors of John Dunton, 2 vol."
Not exactly bestsellers....

I, too, wondered if this was a cheaper alternative for new books bought in boards - a DIY way to have new titles without the cost of leather binding. But apparently this wasn't the case, at least with the volumes in the Wordsworth and Southey libraries. All were well-worn older books, most likely purchased used, and then recovered.

Which is not to say that there aren't some books with cottonian bindings floating around out there that were purchased new - but these examples weren't.

Lil said...

I once lived in a small town where the library used to cover old books with worn bindings with wallpaper remnants. It made for nice cheerful bookshelves—and was certainly better than throwing out the books.

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