Papier Mâché and The Private Library
By L.D. Mitchell
One of the most unusual bindings one is likely to encounter among books purchased at yard sales, garage sales, friends-of-the-library book sales and the like is papier mâché. Somewhat similar to the "paper shreds and paste" used by school children for art projects,
so-called papier-mâché bindings were made from a molded mixture of plaster, a filler, and possibly actual papier-mâché and antimony. At least some examples were built up on a metal framework; bookbinding historian and master binder Bernard Middleton suggests that this indicates they were made in a minimum of 1,000 sets to offset the cost of producing the complex molds. The bindings are usually black, sometimes with cutaways to show a colored underlay, and quite medieval in spirit. The texts often address ecclesiastical subjects.
The University of Rochester's excellent online exhibition Beauty for Commerce (from whence comes the above quotation and the first two images) observes that the popularity of such bindings, which most often are associated with the English publisher Henry Noel Humphreys, may be traced to the fascination that medieval illuminated manuscripts held for many Victorians. Humphreys himself had been influenced by such manuscripts during a stay in Italy as a young man.
Humphreys published Parables of Our Lord, his first illuminated book in a papier-mâché binding, in 1847. The text, a reworking of various New Testament stories, was printed by chromolithography in a script reminiscent of gothic handwriting. Two thousand copies were printed by the British publisher Longman & Co., one thousand copies of which were sold to the American publisher D. Appleton (with a changed title page).
We have lightened the above image to better bring up the details, which the University of Rochester exhibition notes are as follows:
Each of the four corners has a wreath containing the head of an angel, a lion, an eagle or an ox, representing Gospel authors Matthew, Mark, John and Luke. Stylized oak leaves occupy the top and bottom central rectangles. The central figure is a sower within a wreath around which two ribbons are wrapped on a staff. "Scripture Parables" appears on the ribbons in raised Gothic letters.
Humphreys published on many subjects, including numismatics. His 1855 publication The Coinage of the British Empire features on its papier-mâché binding Henry VIII's royal coat-of-arms as it appeared on gold sovereigns of that monarch.
The above image, which we also have considerably lightened in order to bring up the details, reveals that areas of leather have been cut away to reveal a colored underlay.
Religious texts were a popular topic for papier-mâché bindings (no doubt due to the fact that such texts lent themselves to medieval-style illustration), and several books so bound are well-known, including Humphreys' own The Miracles of Our Lord.
Families migrating west during the settlement of the American frontier often carried the Christian Bible or other religious texts with them, which books often were the only books they owned. It perhaps is not surprising, then, that such texts - some of which were bound in papier-mâché - occasionally make an appearance at yard sales, garage sales, friends-of-the-library book sales and the like. What is surprising is finding such books in anything approaching Fine condition: papier-mâché bindings are far more fragile than their iron-like appearance would indicate, and over the decades many have fallen prey to water damage, biopredation and other ills. Even common titles, if they have survived with their papier-mâché bindings largely undamaged, will net the fortunate finder a nice premium in today's marketplace ...
For many years L.D. Mitchell's blog The Private Library showed collectors that it is possible to build a collection without the benefit of much money. He published numerous articles on every imaginable subject of book collecting, he wrote about the most beautiful, the most important, the most common, the most attractive, the most unusual, the most interesting, the most extraordinary, the most amazing ... books one could read, buy, collect and simply enjoy. The Private Library has become an irreplaceable resource for all booklovers. Since April 2012, it is a static archive. L. D. Mitchell will no longer post new original content. ILAB is very grateful that he has given permission to publish some of his best articles and collecting tips from The Private Library on the ILAB website. Thank you very much, L.D.