I’ve been acquiring books that were produced by the Edinburgh publishers Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier between about 1880 and 1900. Specifically, I’ve been looking at their floral covers, because something very interesting seems to have happened around about 1890.

Until that decade, books with cloth covers were fairly plain. The cloth itself was normally blocked (stamped) in black or gold and the only colour in evidence, other than the cloth itself, might be a picture, printed on paper and pasted to the cover.

Then some change in technology occurred, and full colour printing on the cloth became possible. How did Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier respond to this change? Well, they produced a set of floral book covers because, I assume, how could you more obviously show off a wide range of colours than by drawing from nature?

Some of these floral designs had previously been used on monochrome covers, simple outline drawings blocked in black. Many of the designs were seen for the first time in full colour.

Some example covers

I have decided to investigate several aspects of this colour revolution. I’d love to know exactly how these covers were produced, i.e. are they painted wood blocks, copper plates, lithography? I’d like to know who designed them, and how many designs there were, too. If I can pin down exactly when they were first produced, I may even be able to discern which equipment was being used, so a look at patents and catalogues of printing equipment is on the cards.

Victorian book covers are not something I’ve ever looked at before, nor had I heard of Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier before happening across these books, so along the way I will be investigating the history of the company, their relationships to other firms at the time (because they certainly weren’t the only ones producing floral covers), and the printing and binding technology of the preceding decades.

Many of the books I am acquiring have covers that are faded and rubbed, which is not surprising given their age, so the single tie-in that this has to my other computing interests is that I will be re-drawing the covers with Inkscape in order to restore them to perhaps how they looked when fresh off the presses, 130 years ago.