Modeled on European antecedents, the first American gift book appeared in December of 1825, a product of the Philadelphia publishing firm Carey & Lea. Gift books (or “literary annuals”) were compilations of poetry, prose, and illustrations produced on an annual basis. Meant to be given as gifts, as their name implies, they were published in fancy decorated bindings often comprised of novel materials, including embossed morocco, textured cloth, and covers inlaid with decorated papers and even mother of pearl.
Publishers of gift books collected some of the best writing and artistic talent of the time. Writers such as Catharine Beecher, Lydia Maria Child, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hannah Flagg Gould, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Greenleaf Whittier contributed text, while artists such as portraitists John Cheney and John Sartain contributed engravings. Gift books did not just serve as quasi- “coffee table” books meant to decorate the parlor. They also brought samples of American literature to a much wider reading public.
Publishers in other American cities imitated the early efforts of Carey & Lea, recognizing that even with their fancy embellishments, gift books could be rapidly and cheaply produced (in a variety of styles to suit one’s budget) to a guaranteed market year after year. Publishers, in fact, often recycled illustrative plates and text over the years. The story of gift books is a story of the commodification of reading and of recognizing the value of the book as a material object – judging it by its cover.
The Library Company has one of the premier collections of gift books and decorative bindings in the country. The recent acquisition of two premier binding collections – the Michael Zinman Collection of Publishers’ Bindings and the Todd Pattison Collection of Signed Bindings – has taken our number of bindings well over the 3,000 mark. They include literary annuals, specially-bound book sets, albums, Bibles, biographies, and other subjects. The books are bound in morocco, printed and marbled papers, embossed cloth, inlaid leather, gutta-percha, velvet, and celluloid. A database of representative publishers’ book bindings in cloth ranging in date from the mid 1820s to 1900 will be accessible through our website in the near future.
Frederick W. Faxon. Literary Annuals and Gift Books. A Bibliography 1823-1903 (Middlesex, England: Private Libraries Association, 1973).
Michael Sadleir. XIX Century Fiction: A Bibliographic Record Based on His Own Collection(Cambridge, MA: Maurizio Martino, ).
Ralph Thompson. American Literary Annuals & Gift Books 1825-1865 (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1936).
Edwin Wolf 2nd. From Gothic Windows to Peacocks: American Embossed Leather Bindings, 1825-1855 (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990).