Publishers’ Bindings through the Decades:


(Harper, 1842)

By the 1840s, cloth bindings were widely accepted and universally used in America. Ruled borders, often with corner pieces, became common. Small center vignettes and cartouches were widely used. Classical imagery such as such as flower vases, lyres, and fountains were popular. Borders and corners generally were blind-stamped, while the center motif was either blind-stamped or gilt. The spine generally was heavily decorated in gold.

At the same time that cloth covers were growing more opulent, paperbacks entered the market. Publishers were forced to create these inexpensive books to compete with newspapers that had begun to print novels in newspaper format. Frontier stories and tall tales remained prevalent during this decade, although travel sketches became popular as well.

A new genre–mystery and detective stories–emerged with the publication in 1841 of Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe, who died in 1846, was among the most prolific writers of the decade. Among his other works published during the 1840s was the famous poem "The Raven.”


Voices of Nature, and Thoughts in Rhyme
(J.V. Cowling and G.C. Davies, 1849)

Herman Melville was an important literary figure as well, producing novels such as the pseudo-travelogues Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer was another popular book of this decade. Several important periodicals emerged as well. Eccentric politician Horace Greeley began his penny newspaper The New York Tribune in 1841. The Dial, a Transcendentalist literary magazine, was published from 1840 to 1844, and Amelia Bloomer’s feminist Lily first appeared in 1849.

Minstrel shows, the first uniquely American form of entertainment, featured humorous skits and musical numbers. Stephen Foster composed many of the minstrel songs that were performed in the 1840s and '50s, such as "Old Folks at Home," "Oh! Susanna," and "Camptown Races." Other popular tunes of this decade included "Buffalo Gals," "Jimmy Crack Corn," and "Skip to My Lou." The waltz and polka were fashionable dances of the time.

America was in the throes of westward expansion, and politicians coined the term “manifest destiny” to explain the need for increasing American territory. The Mexican War (1846-48) began with the annexation of Texas and resulted in the annexation of New Mexico and California. As long roads such as the Oregon Trail opened, large-scale migration to the Pacific coast began. Movement to California increased when the discovery of precious metals in 1848 spurred the first Gold Rush. Covered wagon trains began giving way to the "iron horse" after the Pacific Railroad was chartered in 1849.

The United States also experienced record-shattering rates of immigration, instigated by the Irish potato famine and crop failures in Germany. Nativist groups formed to protest the influx of European immigrants. Among them was the "Order of the Star Spangled Banner," which eventually became the American or "Know Nothing" political party.

View all books from 1840-1849 in PBO database

Decades Gallery Home | 1815-29 | 1830-39 | 1840-49 | 1850-59
1860-69 | 1870-79 | 1880-89 | 1890-99 | 1900-09 | 1910-19 |1920-30



Allen, Sue. Decorated Cloth in America: Publisher’s Bindings, 1840-1910. Los Angeles: UCLA, Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1994.

American Cultural History, Kingwood College,

American Studies: Literature On-line Textbook,

Coit, Margaret L., and the editors of Life. The Sweep Westward, 1829-1849, vol. 4 in The Life History of the United States. New York: Time Inc., 1963.

Diehl, Edith. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique. New York: Dover, 1980.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, ed. Bookbinding in America. Portland, ME: Southworth-Anthoensen, 1941.

Museum of Westward Expansion, National Park Service,

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