PART II: HISTORY OF GILT
BY: LAUREN GALLOWAY
Gold decoration on books has been around for centuries. From its past history to current use, on books both old and new, big and small, inexpensive and luxurious, Pitt Special Collections brings you a three part series on GILT.
Gilded books have a history of being luxury items, but at one point gilt was a decoration even bestowed on ordinary books. From the 1600s to the 1800s, books were bought as mere sheets, with only paper wrappers serving as a “cover.” This was the norm, as the owner of the book was expected to have the book bound later, under his or her specific desires. Often times, the wealthy would have their collections bound the exact same way so that their libraries would look uniform.
Of course, gilt decorating on these books cost extra. By the late 1660s though, bindings were readily available with extra gilt on the spines and covers, and with gilt lettering. This became referred to as the “common” binding.
This copy of Little Men by Louisa May Alcott is probably a common binding. Even children got gilt on their books, as shown on this copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
As gilt became a more common decoration, people got more creative with it.
Compare these two copies of She Stoops to Conquer. Even as gilt became a standard in bookbinding, using a significant amount to decorate books still cost a pretty penny, and still marked that its owner was a wealthy man or woman.
Gold is known as the traditional and most beautiful method to decorate books, and was adhered to the cloth or leather by great pressure and heat. In the early days, this took a great deal of time, skill, and money.
In the 1660s and 1670s, bookbinders began to gild the spine, with or instead of the edges of books. This was because people started shelving their books with the spines facing outwards instead of the fore-edges, which are the edges of paper opposite the spine; they basically shelved their books backwards!
The gilt edges of books became unnecessary because they were less visible, but were still used for elaborate bindings. By 1830, printers figured out how to adapt an iron printing press to block an entire design to the sides and spine of a book. Look at these copies of Jane Austen’s books.
Their gilt covers are exactly the same, except for the titles. If the title block was removable, it would make it extremely easy to use a printing press to stamp the same design onto these different books. It became a much cheaper process than to do every book by hand or to create a different cover for each title, and made them look nicely uniform.
Though gilded books used to be commonplace, in today’s world you have probably only experienced them first-hand if you have a new, fancy, expensive copy of a book, or if you have a very old book. If you get a chance to look at one yourself, you should take it; some are quite beautiful.
Next week: Booklovers’ Gilty Pleasures
Bennett, Stuart. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles: 1660-1800. First ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2004. Print.
McLean, Ruari. McLean, Ruari. Victorian Publishers’ Book-Bindings in Cloth and Leather. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: U of California, 1973.