We are so pleased to welcome Andrea Reithmayr, Special Collections Librarian and the Rare Book Conservator at the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. Today she discusses the Beauty for Commerce exhibition, a collection and examination of vintage book bindings – and gives us the inside scoop on some of her favorites. Happy browsing! - Laura

Can you tell us a bit about the collection of bindings in the University of Rochester Special Collections, and how the Beauty for Commerce exhibition came to be?

Frances Trego Montgomery. On a Lark to the Planets. Akron, OH: The Saalfield Publishing Co., 1904.

Like many of my fellow librarians and conservators, I have long been fascinated by nineteenth century publishers’ bindings for their artistic beauty and for the evidence they present in the study of literacy, bookbinding technology and material culture. I had studied and become good friends with the legendary Sue Allen whose teaching on publishers’ bindings (primarily at Rare Book School) did so much to bring attention to these objects and the artists, technologies and cultures that created them.

Like most academic libraries, the University of Rochester Libraries contain tens of thousands of nineteenth century publishers’ bindings.  In addition to the books throughout our Rare Book (and circulating) stacks, we also have a discrete publishers’ binding collection of around 1,300 volumes–the gift of Robert Metzdorf, a librarian, bibliophile and scholar who collected widely in Victoriana.

In 2002, I showcased our publishers’ bindings collection by curating a physical exhibit of more than 200 books in the Rare Books Dept.  Sue Allen came to Rochester to deliver the opening lecture.  In order to publicize our collection and participate in the burgeoning field of research in this area, we decided shortly thereafter to create a web version of Beauty for Commerce. My colleague and our Digital and Visual Resources Librarian, Melissa Mead, undertook scanning bindings from the show, worked with a student intern to design the online exhibit, and received permission to use the magnifier code from Mihai Parparita.   I adapted my text from the physical exhibit and the online version went up in 2006.

How does the exhibition/collection get used, by researchers, scholars, university courses, etc.?

Bouillet. Les Messagers des Graces. Paris: Chez Marcilly, 1818.

Over the last few decades, the study of material culture has blossomed as a means to explore the evolution of specific technologies as well as the histories of minorities, working women, and others. Trends in publishing have become an essential part of these studies while continuing to be of vital interest to those researching the history of the book, the rise of literacy, the impact of technological change, and the development of the mechanical and decorative arts.

Scholars may depend on descriptive bibliography and books’ physical evidence to establish authors’ and publishers’ intent, marketing and sales trends, and to track the use of decorative elements across disciplines.  Comparing binding variants and other changes occurring between different editions can lead to an understanding of an author’s role in shaping a text’s evolution and how this intent may have been adulterated by editors over time. Further, the quality and treatment of the materials used in a book’s production reveals clues about the publisher’s intended markets and the way the book was received by contemporary readers. The research potential of books retaining their original publishers’ bindings has gained because these three-dimensional works provide evidence of:

  • technological advances brought on by the Industrial Revolution
  • the development of commercial art
  • the marketing of various types of texts
  • the changing nature of women’s work
  • laudable bindings designed by noteworthy painters, architects, typographers, and some of the first female graphic artists

George H. Boker. Calaynos. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1848.

I am regularly contacted by librarians, collectors, and book dealers who are conducting their own research and wish to compare bindings, consult on identifying a designer or engraver or the like as a part of their larger work.

Frances Percival, ed. Sweet Home. Boston: L.P. Crown & Co., 1856.

Like many other librarians and teachers, I have featured these books in class presentations on, e.g., the Industrial Revolution, the American Civil War, nineteenth century bestsellers, Tennyson, the exploration of the American West, Arts in American Culture, various artistic movements, etc.  I’ve done overview talks and presentations about the period 1830-1910 students of English, History, Graphic Arts, Marketing as well as local arts clubs, museum volunteers, book clubs, book sellers.

Do you know of any visual artists who have used the collection for research for creative projects?

I’ve had some really interesting discussions with individuals who came to research specific periods whose personal work was calligraphy, font design, furniture design, textile art, and jewelry all of whom were looking to various forms of print culture for inspiration. Sometimes people will contact me asking to be pointed to similar examples of design, or other works by particular designers.

Any favorites/especially interesting bindings you would like to highlight?

My favorites change regularly, and it seems that every day in the library I encounter at least one book that makes me smile for one reason or another.  In general, I love the glimpses of social and cultural life from our collective past that these books offer.  As new technologies were introduced, we can see the various practitioners learning their way to excellence, sometimes feel the pressure they must have been under to go faster, produce more.

I am partial to the ribbon embossed and patterned cloth of the 1830s-40 but am also very aware of the restraint imposed upon society and projected in the books’ decoration.  I appreciate the balance and well-bred exuberance of many of the 1850s’ gift books, designed for the parlor to announce ‘Look! I’ve got this book!’, but they feel somehow cold and distant to me.  I prefer the scenes of domestic and work life from mid-century, a dog and sled careening through the snow, workers dwarfed by a machine, a perfect cottage and garden, complete with cat, etc.  I appreciate the somber tone and often elegant, sparse design of so many American books of the Civil War years.

The often overwhelming, chaotic (sometimes awful) design of the 1870s and 80s reflects the rapid expansion of print culture and the breaking down of many formal barriers. I am partial to many of the Orange, Judd books of the 1870s, with gilt images on their covers that tell you immediately that this particular book contains all the information you need to produce, say, the perfect peach or pig.

Paul Leicester Ford. Tattle Tales of Cupid. New York: Dodd Mead & Co., 1898.

I suppose my favorite period, overall, is 1890-1910 as more women and artists from varied fields entered into cover design.  The wide range of design, its sophistication and modernity is frequently astounding and I often feel something like the promise of spring from these covers.  Like great advertising in any medium, they make me pick up the object and want to possess it.  

Explore the Beauty for Commerce Exhibition.

Andrea G. Reithmayr is a Special Collections Librarian and the Rare Book Conservator at the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. In addition to the exhibition “Beauty for Commerce: Publishers’ Bindings 1830-1910, she has worked with artist Keith Smith on Pages as Stages, a major retrospective of his bookworks.  In 2010, the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press published Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity,co-edited by Ms. Reithmayr and Eugenia V. Ellis, to coincide with a physical exhibition in the University of Rochester’s Rare Books Department curated by Reithmayr.  Bragdon (1866-1946) was a first-generation modernist architect who practiced his art in the built world, graphic and theater arts, and color music. For half a century, he published regularly on subjects as varied as hyperspace and Henry James. Celebrating the life and work of this extraordinary artist, the book’s catalogue of more than 250 images accompanies 12 essays by leading scholars.  The book was awarded the 2011 Leab Award by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ALA/ACRL.  Ms. Reithmayr has taught bookbinding, conservation and history of the book classes and workshops throughout the region. Her bookbindings are held in several collections in the U.S. and Great Britain.

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