I was very excited for Saira Haqqi’s talk about rebinding at the Pierpont Morgan Library when I first saw the 2016 AIC Conference Program. Most of my scholarly interests lie in book history and early binding structures. Inevitably this means coming across manuscripts and incunabula that have been rebound.
This talk focused specifically on the early 20th century rebinding of the Morgan’s collection by Marguerite Duprez Lahey. Marguerite was the first binder contracted by Pierpont Morgan to rebind some of his ever-growing collection. Her appointment was a departure from past practices. Until the early 1900’s most bookbinding in the United States was carried out by immigrant binders. For example, the Grolier Club in New York City brought in binders from France when needed. But the Arts and Crafts movement led to the aristocracy taking up bookbinding as a hobby. Many who did so were women. This was how Marguerite entered the field. Originally she took up bookbinding as a hobby, studying with binders in New York and Paris but not as a formal apprentice.
She quickly came to be regarded as one of the preeminent binders of the day in America and began working for Morgan in 1908 and continued to work for him and later the library until her death in 1958. During her career she rebound over 400 books for the Morgan Library as well as working with other collectors. Her own personal style favored sewing books on cord as a tightback with a French double endband (common for the time period) and with limited board decoration, though a healthy amount of spine decoration. Her tooling was something she was particularly proud of—she made sure to mention it in every interview she gave. Marguerite was also very particular about the leather she used in her bindings, which lead to high quality goatskin being used frequently.
Conservation as the field we know today was in its infancy during Marguerite’s lifetime and the modern field of book conservation did not exist at all (most agree book conservation as it is known today began with the response to the Florence flood in 1966). Therefore, there are almost no records of what type of binding books had before being rebound and the records that do exist are mainly Marguerite’s notes about payments received and what work was done. These records tend to read as “X amount of money received, two volumes rebound in goat”, which is not overly helpful when trying to piece back together the history of these objects.
As a result many things were done that today would not be considered in a conservation lab. The tightback structure was regarded as a very strong structure—something Morgan wanted his books to have. Saira points out that there are many conservation issues with tightback structures. This has led to many modern conservation concerns with Marguerite’s bindings. These include books not opening well—especially those with parchment textblocks, flaking of pigments on illuminations, and the joints failing. These issues are not solely Marguerite’s fault.
Pierpont Morgan, Jack Morgan (his son), and Bella da Costa Greene (first librarian and director of the Morgan Library) all had input into the designs of bindings and had very particular thoughts about how books should look without any knowledge about the structure of books. Book collecting during this time period was viewed as collecting art objects and functionality was not considered. Bindings were only considered interesting if they were pretty or had belonged to someone important. And many of design changes can probably be attributed to Morgan’s changing tastes over time.
Marguerite did her best to please her clients and did so while conforming to the standards of the time in her work. As many of us still do with treatments she had to balance practical concerns with aesthetic preferences. It is also likely that many of the books she rebound were purchased by Morgan rebound (though there is not direct evidence of this in her records) and as such makes her own rebinding less problematic. Still in the recent past some of her rebindings have again been rebound due to the conservation concerns mentioned above. However, this does not change that she was regarded as the best American binder of her day and her bindings are still sought after by collectors.
Saira did an exemplary job exploring the use of rebinding at the Morgan Library early on in its history and presenting it at AIC. She has helped shed light on how these decisions were made and explored Marguerite Duprez Lahey’s role in executing these treatments.