You will note reference in this picture to “boards” or “paper boards”. (It gets a bit bigger if you click on it.) John Carter, in a 1931 piece from The Colophon, from which this picture is taken, sort of clarifies matters when he distinguishes between “boards” and “extra boards”, which, he informs us “in the trade parlance of the time usually denotes ‘all-over’ paper boards, as opposed to board sides backed with some other colored paper.” I’m not altogether clear about what the distinction being made here is, but the point I want to make is that while publishers today (or maybe it was really the day before yesterday) will refer to a book bound in boards when they mean to distinguish it from say a paperback — i.e. “boards” as a descriptor today tends to mean hardback/casebound/ cloth/paper over boards, back then it meant specifically paper over boards, and was thought of as temporary

“During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries books were issued to the public, as students of the subject are aware, in two kinds of dress: either in some variety of leather binding, which was supplied by the bookseller, who might or might not be in some sort the publisher; or in a mere temporary envelope of paper wrappers, which were gradually superseded during the second half of the eighteenth century by the more practical paper-covered boards, for all except the slimmest volumes.” The temporary wrapping was designed merely to protect the pages before the buyer could deliver them to their binder. But in order to ease identification they developed into a cover with labelling so that one would know what was inside without having to take it off the shelf and open it.

“In the early years of the nineteenth century it became the practice to issue part of an edition of certain kinds of books in a more definitely uniform style of leather binding. This was mainly confined to sets of volumes   – The Elegant Extracts, Scott’s Poetical Works, Novels & Tales and such-like – which were published in uniform bindings of straight-grain morocco: and publishers were quite clearly developing a taste for uniformity of exterior in their books which was unknown in previous periods and foreign to the more individual taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

When exactly was the first book offered by a bookseller/publisher in cloth? The answer seems to be 1821. The innovator appears to have been William Pickering who is alleged to have been inspired by the consideration of a red lining to some curtains. The volume in question was one of the Diamond Classics series (shown at the top left of the picture above). The binding was still of course thought of as temporary. It will probably be impossible ever to identify the moment when the “temporary” had shaded into the “permanent”. Mr Pickering seems not to have made much fuss about this innovation. We pay no attention to so many of these little changes in the detail of our world; they seem so trivial to us at the time that contemporary documentation is scant or non-existent. After all, why would Mr Pickering think at the time that what he was doing would become the way books were published a generation down the road?

Mr Carter’s essay “Origins of Cloth Bindings” can be found at Bookbinding.com.

See also Book cloth.