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Last week I learned that …

April 22, 2013

Last week  I learned a little about women bookbinders and exposed this inadequacy to the WWW. I have learned a little more since reading Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920 by Marianne Tidcombe.  Although it was a little expensive for my book budget it has already proved to be a rich source of social history that would have gone unnoticed. (by me)

It seems that bookbinding was not an artistic craft as it is enjoyed today; it was a trade. As such only boys were able to become apprentices and work up to become a bookbinder. When bookbinding classes began in the late 19th century it was only tradesmen who could attend.  

So I was mistaken about this previously, it was not the Trades Union that exempted women from the shop floor, they were never allowed there in the first place.  The Unions were just not in a hurry to get the regulations changed.

As I  said before women were employed to do the folding and stitching but never worked beside the men. Also there was no way to progress higher or to get promotion. So many women spent their lives confined to folding and stitching, on a small salary only to be sacked when they became too old and unable to keep up the standards expected of them.  

Middle class ladies could not work; it was considered unseemly.  However as time went on so there were opportunities for young women to attend the new art colleges.  At the same time John Ruskin and William Morris were actively involved in a handicrafts revival and encouraging women who were confined to the home  not only to explore more creative ways to express themselves but to consider training in art and design.  

Also as mentioned before some bookbinders were prepared, for a considerable investment to train would be female bookbinders.  

While some women excelled and were recognised for good workmanship others were dismissed and made fools of.

However the ‘revival’ worked and women  from ‘Bloomsbury to Scotland,’ from all walks of life became interested in the craft of bookbinding.  

Some took it seriously such as Sarah Prideaux, Katherine Adams and Sybil Pye and those who set up the Guild of Women Binders.

According to Marianne, there were some women who took up the trade as a stopgap like Enid Bagnold who was set up in business as binder by her father when her love affair with Frank Harris ended.

Marianne Tidcombe suggests those who did best in the business of bookbinding were those who committed their whole life to the trade; if not unmarried certainly without children.  

The so called revival in bookbinding was at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century and went into a decline at the start of the first World War.  Marianne goes on to say that while women were able to master all the various skills,they were not all considered the best craftswomen.  However some women  were able to produce much innovative and interesting works and went to become influential not only in the short lived Guild of Women Binders but in the teaching of binding and design.  Sometimes even the very average young women produced fresh and appealing designs far superior to that of some established tradesmen; women such as Katherine Adams and Sybil Pye. 

While Marianne Tidcombe says in her preface that her work is not a social history, Women Bookbinders 1880 -1920 has given me an insight into the history and given be a better understanding of why women were [unfairly] excluded from industry and particularly bookbinding and how in a relatively short time made in roads into the male domain. 

Also I thank a kindly colleague who helped me with this post and I understand had at least one female apprentice in his bookbindery.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Bloomsbury permalink
    April 22, 2013 9:00 am

    Fascinating reading

    • April 22, 2013 9:05 am

      Yes!! I am hooked on these ladies _/\_ xxx

      • Laura Bloomsbury permalink
        April 22, 2013 9:09 am

        from cover to cover 😉

  2. April 22, 2013 10:46 am

    I didn’t know you were interested in this – will have to think if I know any other resources! Apparently there is a scrapbook called the Society of Women Employed in Bookbinding Rules London in the BL’s Jaffray Collection. Could be very interesting!

    • April 22, 2013 1:03 pm

      Not so just Book binding more women’s issues in early book publishing, illustration and design. My work in Mark Longman Library has helped as it is a rich source of related subjects a wonderful opportunity for me in Special Collections _/\_

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