Judging a Book by Its Cover: Bookbindings from the Collections of The Grolier Club, 1470s-2020

Poster for H. George Fletcher's exhibition titled Judging a Book by Its Cover

The bookbinding was an intrinsic part of the change from roll to codex, generally assigned to the North African littoral in the 3rd or 4th century C.E. This new form, the book as we know it, with its gatherings of leaves, required something to hold those gatherings together and to protect the contents. The solution was covers, likely of wood: the etymology of the term codex reflects its derivation from the Latin for tree trunk, caudex.

Bookbindings have always exerted a strong appeal on bibliophiles, constituting a major genre in collections of manuscripts and printed books. This has been especially the case at The Grolier Club. Our founding members, beginning exactly 140 years ago in January 1884, were motivated to create and foster the Club because of their sense of bookish congeniality among the like-minded. It is clear from the historical record that they were particularly anxious about the contemporary situation involving the clothing of books. The domestic scene was discouraging: current productions employed acidic paper with trade bindings reflecting only too well the heavy-handed styles of the era. The treatment of rare books and manuscripts was essentially worse – style overcoming substance, bookblocks encased in straightjackets that discouraged or deterred use of the contents, often unsympathetic décor.

While the acceptable solution then was to have one’s rarities bound or rebound in France, or in England by binders attuned to French taste and methods, this raised the specter of entrusting rare works to the vagaries of transatlantic shipping. (Rare books were among the losses on the Titanic, to mention a famous instance.) A select few of our founders called into being The Club Bindery, persuading accomplished specialists, primarily French, to move to New York to fill this need.

Over the scores of years, the Club and our members have nurtured the craft of bookbinding by collecting historic examples, fostering the creation of new work by emerging artistbookbinders, and hosting scores of exhibitions. The collection is overwhelmingly the result of members’ generous gifts, from our early days to the present. The current installation, a large selection of both carefully preserved and overly loved examples, reflects our stewardship.

H. George Fletcher