This post is by Rebecca Grabie, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
The art of bookbinding is the art of creating in the reader, by the composition of the covers of a book, the state of mind desired by the author of the book. It is an art of the book-lover, not of the printer, publisher, bookbinder, or author. It is to express the sentiment of the author as it is viewed by the book-lover.” Henri Pène du Bois. Four Private Libraries of New York: A Contribution to the History of Bibliophilism in America. 1892.
Some of the most unique bindings in the New-York Historical Society Library can be found among the books donated by former Historical Society president George Albert Zabriskie (1868-1954). A man with a number of hobbies and a fascinating architectural legacy, Zabriskie’s books are an incredible example of bookbinding as its own exceptional art form. (Click here for more on Zabriskie’s home, Cliff Dale.) Having been an executive for the Pillsbury Flour Mills Co. and the Columbia Baking Co., as well as the sugar and flour administrator during World War I, it is Zabriskie’s personal interests and talent that is of pique interest here.
Zabriskie was an avid book and art collector, who extended his passion for collecting books into creating them, by being binding finisher and sometimes author. As president of the Historical Society, he donated many of his own personal books with these exceptional bindings to the Library. From looking through the collection, it is clear Zabriskie had a fond love for morocco binding. This fine leather made out of goatskin is excellent at absorbing vibrant colors. In his notes on bookbinding, which can be found in the Manuscripts Department, Zabriskie explained the process of bookbinding and the morocco leather he used, which is evident in the smooth and subtle grains of the bindings. Zabriskie had a talent for a number of binding finishes, using hand tools to create exemplary decorations. He often used brightly colored moiré silk doublures, creating a feast for the eyes. And just as an artist signs their work, so too do bookbinders. A gilt tooled GAZ can be found on the inside covers of many of his books.
Yet what really makes some of these books pop out is Zabriskie’s skill in Cosway bindings, in which miniature portraits are inserted within the leather and framed behind a glass or plastic case. Believing that the binding should represent the contents of the book in some way, Zabriskie would bind a small portrait of George Washington into a book about Washington.
Rather than stopping at a straightforward visual representation, a book about snakes is bound in both morocco and snake skin. And the book about bison? You guessed it. (Perhaps the most ironic part of this book is that it is entitled The American Bison: The Story of its Extermination as a Wild Species and its Restoration under Federal Protection.)
In some cases, in addition to being the binder, Zabriskie would have volumes privately printed, presenting them to friends as gift books. And in still some others, he took the project to the next logical step and wrote the book himself. These gift books often have the name of his winter residence in Ormond Beach, Florida, curiously known as The Doldrums, printed on the title page. Perhaps his most well-known gift book written by him is The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or, How to Mix Drinks. You can read about Zabriskie’s love of bookbinding in his own words from the July 1940 New-York Historical Society Quarterly.
Below are some more examples of Zabriskie’s bindings.