Publishers’ Bindings through the Decades:


The Odd-fellows' Offering for 1852
(E. Walker, 1852)

Ornamentation of book bindings reached new heights in the 1850s. Red became a popular cloth color, although elaborate and lavish gold-stamped designs covered much of the material. Binders began using large pictures, often specific to the topic of the book. The books commonly were decorated on both the front and the back covers. Americans enjoyed giving these works of art as gifts. In fact, it was during this period that gift books or annuals–meant to be displayed on a table so that their covers could be admired–became prevalent.

The opulence of book bindings matched the prosperity that continued in the West. Gold prospectors began doubling back from California to explore other western territories, discovering the precious metal at Pikes Peak in Colorado and Comstock Lode in Nevada. Gold rushes hastened development of those territories, effectively closing the mines of California and drawing novices who wanted to escape economic depression in the east. New roads and railroads aided the westward movement, as did the new stagecoach lines.


Christmas Blossoms, and New Year's Wreath, for MDCCCLI
(Phillips & Sampson, 1851)

Meanwhile, debates over slavery reached a boiling point in the east. The Compromise of 1850 included bills bringing New Mexico into the Union as a slave state and imposing a penalty on anyone who failed to turn in escaped slaves. The Supreme Court ruled that because he was black, Dred Scott was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, providing for popular decision on slavery in that territory. A fraudulent election resulted in a dual government, and the violence that followed earned the territory the nickname "Bloody Kansas." Also during this decade, former slave Sojourner Truth made her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at a woman’s rights rally, and abolitionist John Brown raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry as part of his effort to establish a colony for runaway slaves.

Literature reflected the atmosphere of the time. Many of the important books during the 1850s dealt with slavery, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom. Several other works of the decade still are read today, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Important periodicals that began during this decade include the New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, and Atlantic Monthly.

Minstrel shows continued their popularity, and intensified antislavery sentiment through their racist portrayal of blacks. Songs such as "My Old Kentucky Home" reflected the southern way of life, while tunes including "Yellow Rose of Texas" exhibited fondness for the new American West.

View all books from 1850-1859 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 Union Sundered, 1849-1865, vol. 5 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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