From boxes to bindings, scroll down to see how some of these papers were used to decorate everyday things.
In the eighteenth century, expensive and elaborate bookbindings were almost invariably covered in high-quality leather, often tooled in gold. Such luxury might be carried to the inside of the book by lining the inside of the covers with decorated paper. This was especially popular on Bibles and Prayer Books bound in Scotland.
This brocade paper, covering an estate account book from Lincolnshire, is typical of the way decorated paper was used to give distinction and some protection to types of book which were never going to be more elaborately bound. This type of wrapper is commonly found on pamphlets, theses, music partbooks, and children’s books. It is sometimes found on more substantial printed books, whose owners were either uninterested, or could not afford to have them properly bound.
In the twenty-first century books almost always come ready-bound in covers designed by the publisher. This became common only in the nineteenth century, and its origins lie with volumes such as this one from 1796 – celebratory poems for the appointment of an official to the administration of St Mark’s, Venice. All the copies were bound the same, in a coloured-paper wrapper, printed with designs for both covers and the spine which fit the volume, and incorporating the coat of arms of the dedicatee of the poems.
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A wrapper in decorated paper was the perfect way to glamourize a presentation copy of a small book, in any situation where an elaborate binding in leather would have been too expensive, disproportionate to the circumstances, or taken too long to execute. It was used most often on university theses, sermons, and commemorative souvenirs.
This is a relatively rare type of paper, covered all over in metallic leaf and embossed with a pattern, but having no colouring at all. The volume is a souvenir of the dedication of a statue of a ruler of Modena in 1774.
Download a printable pdf of this decorated paper here.
Boxes, furniture and musical instruments
Decorated paper was used for many things other than books – lining boxes and cases or decorating small pieces of furniture. One of the few places this survives in good condition is on high-class musical instruments, which have been carefully looked after.
In the middle of the seventeenth century the Ruckers firm of harpsichord makers had their own block-printed papers specially made to fit the different panels of the cases of their instruments. By the time these were covered in varnish it was hard to tell that they were not elaborate hand-painted decoration.