Judging the 1855 Leaves of Grass by its Covers

Why collect more than one copy of a book?  Books have histories: How were they made?  Who owned them?  How were they used or read, and by whom?

The RBC holds two copies of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, and many other versions of the poem published in later editions. The first edition is one of the most sought-after American books of the 19th century.  One might expect to find two identical books with identical texts in the RBC copies.  But this isn’t so.

The unopened books have evident differences.  One has been “rebacked,” with a new leather spine added to the original cloth-covered boards.  Both books, however, are in what is known as “binding B,” with only the title appearing on the cover in gilt.  (In “binding A” the ruling on the cover also appears in gilt, as does the title on the back of the book, and the edges of the pages are also gilt.) Both books contain the yellow endpapers typical of “binding B.”

Spine view of "rebacked" 1855 Leaves of Grass (Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855b)

 

But even though both fit the description of “binding B,” there are slight but noticeable differences.  The “blind” stamping—that is the decorative impressions made on the covers—appear in slightly different places and upon very close inspection, one notices that they were made by placing the decorative pieces in different places.

Front cover view of "1855a" (Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855a)

Whitman bibliographer Joel Myerson (1993) describes the ornamentation of the front cover of “binding B” as “blindstamped triple-rule frame surrounding five blindstamped leaf-and-vine designs at top and bottom (the tip of the center ornament at the top has two leaves going to the left and one to the right, that of the center ornament at the bottom has two leaves going to the right and one to the left).”  This accurately describes one of RBC’s copies (above).  But in our second copy (below), the top center ornament has two leaves going to the right instead of the left, and the center ornament at the bottom has two leaves going to the left and one to the right.

Front cover view of "1855b"(Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855b)

Whitman did not have all copies of Leaves of Grass bound when the book was printed in July of 1855 because of expense.  Existing records show that the 1855 edition was bound on no less than four occasions and by at least two binders: first by Charles Jenkin’s Brooklyn firm, who later subcontracted the bulk of the binding to the firm of Davies & Hands. An invoice shows that in December of 1855, Davies & Hands printed 169 of the books in “binding B,” and 93 more in January 1856.

The differences between RBC’s two bindings may well indicate these two different dates when decorative metal ornaments and the ruled lines that contain them may have been set up a second time upon the press used to emboss the covers.

Which goes to show that you can perhaps judge the history of a book (or a part of its history) by its covers.

About John Vincler

Rare Book Research Librarian, Research and Instructional Services, Louis Round Wilson Special Collection Library, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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