Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From the Stacks: Elaborate Mother-of-Pearl Bindings

During our recent collections move, we had a chance to discover forgotten treasures hidden in the stacks. While re-shelving the book collection, we came across not one, but two rare examples of papier-mâché bindings. These lovely items have book covers made of layered paper, coated in black varnish and decorated with paint and inlaid mother-of-pearl. Papier-mâché bindings were popular for a brief time in the 1850s, often on gift books, portfolios, and albums.


The first book is Our Saviour with Prophets and Apostles (New York, 1851). This cover features a landscape scene with a ship, framed in gold. Three of the four mother-of-pearl cover bosses are still intact on the upper cover. The upper cover has some cracking and loss of painted details.


The second book is The Iris: An Illuminated Souvenir for MDCCCLII (Philadelphia, 1852). This cover design includes a bouquet of flowers in the center of a black background. The flowers are made of mother-of-pearl, embellished with tinted varnish and gold leaf.

An excellent source on the history and construction of these bindings is Jennifer W. Rosner's essay, "Papier-Mâché Bindings: 'Shining in Black and Gorgeous with Pearl and Gold'" in Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding (Legacy Press, 2013). The Library Company of Philadelphia has perhaps the best collection of papier-mâché bindings, including 49 books and 8 portfolio covers. The collection can be viewed online on Flickr.

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