Cordelia Baker: Teaching Bookbinding to Society Women

A copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, signed and likely bound by Cordelia Baker

What is an Educated Woman to Do?

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was becoming more common for young, upper-class women to go away to receive an education, but few ways for them to use it once they returned home. A 1906 article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch laments, “There are already 10 magazine writers and authors where there is an opening for one. So with nearly everything else. What then, is an educated girl in the West, the Southwest, and the South to do with her education?” The answer, apparently, was for these women to take part in the growing Arts and Crafts Movement.

“A woman, to be a successful bookbinder, must have patience and neatness.” -St Louis Post Dispatch, February 5, 1909

Cordelia Baker’s Bindery

In 1900, Cordelia Baker, a young alumna of the St Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts (an affiliate of Washington University), traveled to England to study bookbinding for a year with T.J. Cobden- Sanderson of the well known Doves Bindery. When she returned, she began teaching the School of Fine Arts’ first courses in bookbinding. Her two courses, “Beginners Course in Bookbinding” and “Advanced Bookbinding,” rapidly gained popularity among young society women, at least two of whom later went on to set up their own bookbinding studio. Women were thought to be especially suited for the art of bookmaking, as it required good sewing skills, patience, neatness, and care, all of which were thought to be feminine qualities. It was also potentially a way for them to make money, as they could buy a book for a dollar, give it a fancy new binding, and resell it for as much as a hundred dollars (“Western Women”).

Below is a photo of two books that were bound by Cobden-Sanderson and inscribed to Cordelia Baker while she was his student.

Two books artfully bound by T.J. Cobden Sanderson and gifted to Cordelia Baker during her time as his apprentice.

An inscription to Cordelia Baker from bookbinder T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in Arts and Crafts Essays.

The Guild of Bookworkers

In 1906, a group of American women who had studied bookmaking, many with Cobden-Sanderson, joined together to form the Guild of Bookworkers. This guild, of which Baker was a charter member, served as a society for people who were interested in binding, printing, designing, and illuminating handcrafted books. The guild first met in the bindery of Emily Preston, who had been the first president of the Arts and Crafts Society in America from which the Guild of Bookworkers had evolved. The Guild of Bookworkers still exists today, making it one of the oldest book-oriented craft organizations in the United States.

Baker Bindings in Special Collections

In 1949, Cordelia Baker’s niece, Anne Baker, bequeathed a collection of hand-bound books to Wash U, along with $2000 for these books’ upkeep. Most of these books were bound by Baker and her students and include both rebound classics like Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and homemade scrapbooks like the three volume set on bookbinding pictured below. In this set, Baker binds together photos of elaborately designed bookcovers, selections from bookmaking periodicals, and photos of bindings that captured the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition during the 1904 World Fair.

Scrapbooks on the art of bookmaking, bound by Cordelia Baker.

Scrapbooks on the art of bookmaking, with copies of illustrated covers, bound by Cordelia Baker.

 

 

Sources:

“Art Students Fit up Bookbinding Plant.” St.Louis Post – Dispatch, Sep 14, 1907, p. 3.

“Western Women Going in for Arts&Crafts.” St.Louis Post – Dispatch, Jan 14, 1906, p. 8

Cole, Ida B. “Book Binding Fad is Gaining in Favor with St. Louis Society Women.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb 5, 1909.

Dryfus, John. “Introduction.” Four Essays by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1974.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.