The Rationale for Rebinding at the Pierpont Morgan Library in the Early Twentieth Century: A Case Study

Abstract

In the United States, scholars rarely see manuscripts and incunabula in their original bindings. Most texts in American rare book collections have been rebound at least once, if not many times, between the time they were created and the present day. Rebinding is therefore an important point to consider in the study of these objects. When and why did it occur? How were decisions made, and who made them? What informed the practice of rebinding?

This paper attempts to contextualize the practice of rebinding in the early twentieth century in America – a time when American collectors were particularly interested in the acquisition of rare books – by using the rebinding practices at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (now the Morgan Library & Museum) as a case study. From 1908 until 1958, much of the rebinding work for the Morgan was carried out by one person – Marguerite Duprez Lahey (1880-1958). Duprez Lahey, born in Brooklyn to a well-to-do family, took up bookbinding as a hobby at the turn of the twentieth century. She studied under several French bookbinders and finishers before beginning her employment at the Morgan. Despite being widely hailed at the time as the best bookbinder in America, she did not receive formal apprenticeship training and from today’s viewpoint, many of her bindings are idiosyncratic and problematic.

A study of the Morgan archives reveals that Duprez Lahey was not the sole decision maker in rebinding manuscripts – John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) and his son, John Pierpont (Jack) Morgan, Jr., (1867-1943) as well as Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), the Morgan’s first librarian and director, played active roles in the eventual fate of the books. Their decisions, in turn, were influenced by aesthetics, a possible concern for durability, and the way in which best practices were understood at the time. Conservation is a very young field, and book conservation is an even more recent development. At the time Duprez Lahey was practicing, conservation ethics were not yet codified. The practice of rebinding rare books had not received the depth of attention that it has today. As such, Duprez Lahey’s work was necessarily limited by the knowledge available to the binder and her employers.

While a lack of documentation makes it difficult to determine exactly why specific books were chosen for rebinding over others, or why certain books were bound in certain styles, an examination of rebinding practices at the Morgan during the first half of the twentieth century offers a glimpse into practices in a library at the forefront of the book world at the time. It provides a new understanding of the relationship between bookbinder and collector, the various influences (artistic and economic) on bookbinders, and the aesthetic values of the collectors of the era.

This paper grew out of research conducted for a Master’s thesis in Art History at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University (NYU). It was sponsored by NYU and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and received additional support from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC). It was presented at the seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen and at the Annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works in Spring, 2016. The full text will be forthcoming in The Book and Paper Group Annual in 2017 under the title “The Rationale for Rebinding at the Pierpont Morgan Library in the Early Twentieth Century: A Study of Bindings by Marguerite Duprez Lahey.”

 

Marbled Paper

All content copyright Saira Haqqi, 2016.