Some people collect antique leather-bound books for purely aesthetic reasons, using them as decorative objects to fill the shelves of a living room or study. Others collect for content, choosing leather-bound versions of their favorite novels or historical works of literature.
Regardless of a collector’s motivation, there are a few things to know. First of all, what type of leather is used in the book’s binding? Because it’s easy to dye, calf skin has long been a favorite of book binders, who also use this type of leather to create tree-trunk or other wood-grain effects. Levant leather is made from goat skin, and was typically used in books described as being made from Moroccan leather. Then there’s seal skin, which is easy to work and gives book covers a shiny look.
The other major attribute of leather-bound books is the decoration on the leather itself. Some books feature coats of arms on their covers, signifying the patron who commissioned them. Others are decorated with specks of dye to create a sprinkled effect.
Relievo binding refers to a deeply embossed type of tooling on a leather-bound book’s cover, Cambridge is the word for two-tone leather covers, and Etruscan binding describes a cover that has been acid etched and typically features a central panel surrounded by a decorative border.
Private presses famous for their leather-bound books include The Kelmscott Press, which was founded in 1891 by English Arts and Crafts evangelist William Morris. Kelmscott inspired Elbert Hubbard to set up the Roycroft Press in the United States.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the U.K.’s Golden Cockerel Press hired Sangorski & Sutcliffe to bind limited editions of “The Canterbury Tales” and other titles. Around the same time, Caxton Press of Idaho published a number of signed, Morocco-leather Vardis Fisher books, some in editions as small as 10.
In recent decades, Easton Press has been producing large quantities of leather-bound books by contemporary authors as varied as Kurt Vonnegut and Maya Angelou. And in the 1970s and ’80s, the Franklin Mint’s Franklin Library division produced mass-market sets such as “The 100 Greatest Books of All Time” and “Pulitzer Prize Classics.”