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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume IV, Issue 1
September 2007   

"Bound to Catch an Eye: Decorative American book covers, 1830-1910" now on display

Imagine a bookstore stocked full of books with no covers. Early printed books were sold in folded sheets, and the buyer took these sheets to a hand bookbinder. During the Industrial Revolution, more people began to buy books and, in turn, more books were published. Publishers realized that sales would improve if an interesting cover caught the eye of potential buyers.

The Ladies of the White House by Laura C. Holloway. Philadelphia: Bradley & Co., 1881
Falvey Memorial Library's Special Collections latest exhibit features a collection of book covers from this important period in American publishing history when publishers issued their books in an array of decorative cloth bindings.

The book covers on display are arranged by decade. You will see the development from the 1830s when the covers were rather plain and in subdued colors into the 1840s when a center gold stamped vignette often illustrated the subject of the book. The bindings became richly elaborate in the 1850s as ornaments crowded the covers, red cloth was popular and the gift-book style was at its height.

The 1860s was a somber decade in the United States because of the Civil War, an atmosphere reflected in the restrained and spare book covers. More elaborate designs can be seen in the next decade: here the covers are often asymmetrical and feature stylized floral elements. This style continued through the 1880s with crowded bulletin board layouts and stamping in several colors.

In the following two decades, publishers hired increasing numbers of professional artists to design their covers, some of whom are featured in this exhibit. One case displays books designed by Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944), considered one of America's best-known designers of cloth bookbindings.

The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock by Thomas Nelson Page. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1900: an excellent example of a Margaret Armstrong design.

Armstrong was influenced by her father, David M. Armstrong, an artist known for his work with stained glass. Her covers are characterized by bold colors, floral motifs and asymmetrical designs. It is estimated that Armstrong created designs for over 270 books.

You are invited to visit the exhibit and admire the covers of books published before the advent of the dust jacket. The exhibition, on the second floor of Falvey, will be on display until Thanksgiving. If you would like to examine the content between the covers, behind these pretty bindings, you are encouraged to contact Special Collections (610-519-5271).

Bente Polites and Teri Ann Incrovato from Special Collections organized the exhibit.

Contributed by Bente Polites and Natalie Tomasco

Digital Library note: Last month, the 1500th item was entered in the Villanova University Digital Library, a major milestone, coming just after a year of active digital library development.