It’s not uncommon for me to encounter small presses, publishers, and binderies with which I’m unfamiliar in the course of my regular work at the Folger. However, few of them have as intriguing a story as the Guild of Women-Binders, which I discovered in our catalog earlier this month.
The Guild of Women-Binders was started by Frank Karslake, a London bookseller with ambitious ideas, but little actual experience in bookbinding. In 1897, he attended the Victorian Era Exhibition, where he encountered a display of work by women bookbinders, and was so intrigued that he contacted the women involved and invited them to display their work at his shop. His “Exhibition of Artistic Bookbinding by Women” attracted enough public interest to convince Karslake that there might be a business opportunity here, and in 1898 he founded the Guild of Women-Binders.
The Guild’s purpose was twofold: to promote and sell the work of established women binders, and to train more women in the art of bookbinding. The first was more easily accomplished than the second. Karslake became the agent for several of the women whose work had been featured in the Victorian Era Exhibition, including Annie S. Macdonald. Macdonald (usually credited as “Mrs. Macdonald” in the Guild’s catalogs and advertisements) was a largely self-trained binder, and had developed a distinctive style, working undressed morocco bindings already attached to the text block with a Dresden tool to produce evocative relief designs. Macdonald, based in Edinburgh, was also an early supporter and member of Karslake’s efforts, as participation in the Guild would bring her work to a London market.
The binding below is possibly an example of Annie Macdonald’s work. It is definitely the output of the Guild of Women Binders, and is very similar to Macdonald’s style, but could also have been done by Phoebe Anna Traquair, a fellow Guild binder and member of Macdonald’s social circle in Edinburgh. It is a unique piece, that does not appear to have been advertised for sale by the Guild, covering a 15th-century incunable of Livy’s Ad Urbe Condita rather than a contemporary text. It was previously owned by illustrator and bibliophile W.T. Smedley, and shows up in a 1920 edition of Book Auction Records, possibly noting its sale to a bookseller after Smedley’s death in 1920.1
Most other Guild bindings featured gilded and colored leather, engraved in flowing patterns of flowers, leaves, or simply geometric shapes. A 1902 catalog, The Bindings of To-morrow, showcased the work of the Guild of Women Binders and its “brother organisation” the Hampstead Bindery, also established by Karslake in 1898.2 The other Guild-produced binding in the Folger collection (on a pocket-sized volume of Cocker’s Arithmetick), in contrast, is much simpler than many Guild bindings—a polished leather binding with some understated lines and gold stamping on the spine. Neither a specific designer nor binder are credited, but the book does have the Guild’s binding stamp.
Ultimately, Karslake’s ambitions did not match his entrepreneurial capabilities. The thorough training program he promoted for new Guild members was hindered by a lack of teachers, and while the Guild did produce and promote a number of skillful women bookbinders, its products did not always live up to their advertisements. Often, Guild training and work was focused only on finishing (the decoration of bindings) rather than forwarding (the attachment of the binding to the text block). Forwarding was either done by other binderies, or done carelessly and cheaply. Our smaller binding seems to me like it may be an example of careless work, or perhaps it was simply done by a Guild member still in training.
Some buyers were disappointed by the finished products, and some critics even suspected Karslake of using the Guild of Women Binders as a gimmick to sell bindings actually created by the (mostly male) binders of the Hampstead Bindery. Bit by bit, demand decreased and Karslake’s finances floundered, and he was forced to shut down both binderies within just a few years of their founding. The Hampstead Bindery closed around 1901, while the Guild of Women Binders continued to operate until 1904, when the remainder of its stock of finished bindings was sold by Sotheby’s.
Some of these bindings might look familiar—Bindings of To-morrow was featured on the Smithsonian Libraries’ Tumblr last week, and the Guild of Women-Binders has been featured on the American Bookbinders Museum blog and the Princeton University Library Graphic Arts Collection blog, among others. However, beyond these sources, there is not a great deal of information about the Guild or its members readily available online.3 I have recently created Wikipedia articles about the Guild of Women-Binders and Annie Macdonald, and hope to flesh out the lives of other Guild members and associated groups. Do you have more information about the Guild, its members, or their work? I would be grateful for any suggestions in the comments—or feel free to start a Wikipedia article for them yourself, if you feel comfortable doing so!
- Somewhat coincidentally, Book Auction Records was another Karslake venture, probably one of his more successful ones. It was established in 1903 and outlived Karslake himself; it was carried on after his death in 1920 by his wife and daughter in cooperation with its publisher, and continued producing volumes annually until 1997.
- Bookbinding in the British Isles: Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century: Catalog 1212, Part 1. London: Maggs Bros., 1996. p. 174
- Marianne Tidcombe’s Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920, published by Oak Knoll Press in 1996, is probably the authoritative printed source; however, it is not widely available in public libraries at this time.