Canvas Covers

A great many of our bound Texas government materials have an accompanying canvas cover.  These covers are frequently seen on oversized, hand-inscribed stationer’s bindings, and many have not fared well.

Early 20th century Texas court index, with a typically battered canvas cover.

These covers seem to have had mixed effects on their books over years of use.  While they do provide protection from light, they can also abrade delicate leather surfaces.

The canvas cover's footprint is visible around the edges of the board. Notice the faded leather at the bottom edge, as well as the abraded suede in all areas except the foreedge.

The pervasive nature of these covers seems to suggest that their use was systematic, or perhaps mandated, by certain state institutions.  There’s even evidence that the covers were contemporaneous with the bindings.

Inside the boards, we see that the canvas cover was made with doublures to match the binding's marbled pastedowns.

Addressing these covers appropriately is a challenge within a conservation treatment.  Despite their contemporaneous appearance, it is difficult to justify the time needed to formulate and execute a treatment for the cover when so many similar items need extensive attention to more fundamental issues.  The right conservation approach to these covers is an open issue on which I’d welcome comments.

I’d also love to learn more about the use and construction of these canvas covers.  Do they appear in other state or government archives?  Who made them and when?  Who decided they should be made?  What types of items received them?

6 thoughts on “Canvas Covers

  1. Canvas covers like these are ubiquitous here at the Indiana State Archives. Just like those in your collections, they cover stationer’s bindings that were hand-inscribed with court records, naturalization records, etc. Many of the canvas covers I’ve seen here are still intact, though we definitely have some that are torn/shredded like the one pictured above. These covers are *extremely* dirty and the original leather underneath exhibits severe “red rot.” Also, since most of these records books were completely disbound at some point in the past in order to be microfilmed, the established practice here has been to box the textblock and discard the cover when a record book is requested for use.

    I asked our archivist if he knew anything about the provenance of the canvas covers. His best guess was that they were sold to state and county court offices by “itinerant salesmen” so that they could cover bindings that were beginning to deteriorate. I just took a look at the two examples that are currently here in the lab and it appears that the canvas covers may be a second attempt at stabilization; the original leather spines were replaced with canvas/buckram some time prior to the entire book being wrapped in canvas.

    Thanks so much for posting on this. I’ll be very interested to hear what else you find out about the history of these covers and what treatment decisions you make. My curiosity has certainly been piqued; I’ll continue to do my own sleuthing and let you know if I turn up anything exciting!

  2. Stephanie, thanks for posting! We now know that at least two states were thinking alike.

    Since the doublures on my cover match the pastedowns on the book, I assumed the cover and the book were made at the same time. I hadn’t considered the possibility of the cover being a later addition, although I can certainly imagine covers being used or sold that way.

    Sometimes these volumes indicate the printer or binder who made them. I wonder if I can find any similar marks on any of the covers?

    Let’s do keep each other posted!

  3. Those covers are all over Missouri, too, here at the State Archives and in county & municipal government offices. Like Sgowler, I’ve assumed they were a first “repair” option, for the leather never seems to be in good shape under the canvas.

    Lisa Fox
    Missouri State Archives

  4. We have hundreds of these at the San Francisco Public Library. Many are in storage, but some are frequently consulted by patrons, so we have had to tackle the disintegrating covers and horrible red rot. “Bookbinding” by John Pleger has a section on the canvas jacket (pp. 256 ff. in the revised edition) which was conceived as “a (renewable) protection to the binding and very desirable for permanent records.” We found canvas too expensive, but, following his quite complete directions, we managed to come up with a linen alternative which at least keeps patrons’ hands clean. We have not, alas, found out how to put the spring back into the binding once the spine has popped. Any suggestions gratefully received.

    Vanessa Hardy

    • Wow, thanks for this fascinating-looking reference. I think our book definitely would have been regarded as “permanent records” when it was made.

      For this treatment, the main objective was spine repair. The sewing was still stable, but I built up several layers of linings including an outer layer of toned Moriki tissue in place of leather. The linings helped stabilize the text block and also created hinges with which to reattach the boards. Then I made a “book shoe” support to minimize the future effects of gravity on the heavy text block. We could justify the time on the treatment because the records are unique and accessed fairly frequently. But I can certainly imagine other volumes in the same condition that might not meet those criteria, and which might be more likely phase box candidates.

  5. Hey Sarah, great post. Canvas covers are ubiquitous on what were conceived of as heavy use bound record – keeping structures in archives all over the US! There was a special canvas sold in the industry for this, I have it on an old sample book somewhere. I think there are companies who still rebind records and print the institution’s name and volume number on these things. They were meant to get dirty and be replaced, it seems. I saw a lovely indigo blue course canvas overcover on a 16 th century Italian account book when I was at Harvard’s Baker Library. So the tradition has been around long before red rot!

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