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A Short History of the Guild of Women-Binders

January 21, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Oak Knoll is proud to announce Special Catalogue 30: The Guild of Women-Binders!

Special Cat 30.COVER

Download a PDF of the catalogue HERE.

View all available titles from the catalogue HERE.


See below for a brief history of the Guild of Women-Binders…



The Guild of Women-Binders
“Finishing” (Tidcombe, 121)

During the latter half nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement took flight in Britain as a reaction to industrialization and mass production. The movement was notably advanced by such luminaries as William Morris, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (who coined the term), and Emery Walker, as well as authors such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti & John Ruskin, artist Edward Burne-Jones, and architect and designer Charles Rennie Macintosh. The focus on the decorative arts, independent of other attributes, became a trend that quickly spread to Europe, the Americas, and around the world, influencing everything from architecture and furniture to art, graphic design, and bookmaking. The Fine Press Revival begun by Morris would turn the book world on its head, and the resurgence of interest in the book as an object would begin, creating a need for artists & artisans.

Additionally, women during this time period were developing a foothold in industries where they had not before. Ainslie C. Waller states in her article from The Private Library (Autumn, Vol 6:3, 1983):

“The involvement of women in the Arts and Crafts movement has been divided by Anthea Callen, in her book on the subject, into four main categories: the working-class or peasant women who were organized and employed in the revival of traditional rural crafts; the aristocratic, upper- and middle-class women who were philanthropically engaged in the organization of rural craft revivals; destitute gentlewomen forced to make an independent livelihood from art-work; and the elite inner circle of educated middle-class women, often related by birth or marriage to the key male figures within the vanguard of the movement.”

Bookbinding, increasingly valued for its artistic contribution during this period, is one such craft that was becoming more open and available to women.  Numerous guilds, schools, and binderies began accepting women at an accelerated pace to help fulfill the role of the decorative binder. These organizations included The Guild of Handicrafts, St George’s Guild, the Royal School of Art Needlework, the Chiswick Art Workers’ Guild, and the Working Ladies Guild, to name a few. These organizations helped launch the lengthy and prosperous careers of some of the most successful and well-known female bookbinders of the time, such as Sarah Prideaux and Katharine Adams.

With bindings by women becoming both more numerous and more elegant, members of the Royal Court began to take notice. It was in 1897, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, that the Victorian Era Exhibition displayed multiple examples of bindings executed by women. The London bookseller Francis Karslake attended this exhibition and took interest in the bindings.



Frank Karslake (1851–1920) made his living through his passion for books and bookselling. He was an interesting figure, in that he started off as an apprentice for a notable London bookseller in his teens, married his wife, Martha McGregor, ventured out on his own for a few years, and then put bookselling on hold to migrate to California to start a fruit farm. It wasn’t until three years after that Karslake returned to London to take up bookselling again and to help found the Guild of Women-Binders.

The Guild was established in May of 1898 at 61, Charing Cross Road, in the same building as Karslake’s other bindery, The Hampstead Bindery. The bindery produced lavishly-bound books in the highest quality material for their clients and took on many different binders, such as Mrs. Annie S. MacDonald, Miss Marshall, Phoebe Traquair, Florence de Rheims, and Frank’s two daughters, Constance & Olive Karslake. In the early months and years of the Guild, women were required to be both designer and binder for a project. That production model eventually became more flexible, so that one person might design a binding for another to finish.

The Guild had four general rules for binders and the books bound in its name. Anstruther’s The Bindings of To-Morrow (1902) states:

“…first requirements in an embellished bookbinding is that it shall be satisfactory to the eyes…Next in order , although perhaps not in importance, may be set down fullness of material treatment. A book is– or ought to be – a thing of utility; an inviting , companionable, useful piece of property, to be handled and surveyed with pleasure…Thirdly, a binding should posses a character of its own, the individual volume or set being distinguished by special treatment from all its fellows…Lastly–and here a code for artistic ethics comes into operation–the design upon a book-cover, in order to qualify as a really efficient application of an idea, should be in correspondence with the nature of the book itself.”

Unfortunately, the Guild of Women-Binders lasted only six years, folding in 1904. This failure can most likely be attributed to Karslake’s requirement that the male staff, most likely from The Hampstead Bindery, work with the women, who were joining the Guild at an accelerated pace. While the standards for the bindings remained high, staff was stretched thin and less income was being generated.

The Guild was in many ways ahead of its time. “At the guild women received instruction in handbookbinding, and were offered employment after the completion of their training. Guild binders set a standard of merit and produced some of the most detailed work of the time. The guild not only extended the work of women into a field that allowed them to make a livable wage, but also encouraged women to express themselves artistically” (Anstruther, Introduction, Bindings of To-Morrow).

Frank Karslake so firmly believed in members of the Guild of Women-Binders and the Hampstead Bindery that he printed The Bindings of To-Morrow at his own expense, in order to advertise the work of his binders. After the folding of the Guild of Women-Binders, Karslake then went on to found what would eventually become the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. His publication of Sale Records: A Price and Annotated Record of London Book Auctions started the process, and, even after his death, his widow Martha ran the catalogue for many years.


“Measuring, possibly
Constance Karslake”
(Tidcombe 120)

Frank Karslake’s two daughters, Constance and Olive, were leading binders of the Guild. What we believe to be Olive Karslake‘s name can be seen on the front end paper of The Book of Common Prayer (item #1), and Constance Karslake designed the binding design for Our Lady’s Tumbler (item #28, 29, & 30).

Johanna Birkenruth was a noted binder associated with the Guild (Tidcombe 117, 159-161) and well-known for her embroidered bindings. One of her bindings was on display at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in 1897, which helped inspire Frank Karslake to found the Guild of Women-Binders. She bound Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo (right, #4).

The Chiswich Art Guild holds an important place in the history of the Guild of Women-Binders. Tidcombe notes that, after 1898, women members of Chiswick sent their work to be bound by Frank Karslake, and, from that time, their work bears the signature of the Guild of Women Binders. Tidcombe writes, regarding the history of The Chiswick School of Arts and Crafts, “The Chiswick Art Workers’ Guild was set up as a commission branch of the School, and made considerable income for the School by doing work for anyone who wished it.” Many members of the Guild were future members of the Guild of Women-Binders.


Portrait of Cardew,  from
The Sketch, 28 December 1898

Although Gloria Cardew was not a bookbinder, “many books colored by her were bound by members of the Guild” (Tidcombe, p. 126). This is largely due to Frank Karslake acting as an agent of hers in 1898 (IBIS Journal, 2014, p. 75). Gloria Cardew is somewhat a mythical figure. While most believe that Cardew was operating as one person, some thought that Gloria Cardew was an acronym due to the great many titles Cardew colored over her short active career without adequate time to color them (Book Club of California, 2019). The frontispiece and illustrated plates of Poems: On Several Occasions (#7) were hand-colored by Cardew.


Miss. M. Marshall was a noted binder and teacher at 5 Bloomsbury Square. She also worked with Sangorski and Sutcliffe and displayed some of her bindings at the 1903 / 1906 Arts & Crafts Exhibitions (Tidcombe 29, 171-2). She bound Les Trois Roses de Marie-Anne (right, #10), and Les Nuits (#9) as well.



Portrait of Macdonald, from The Private Library, Third Series, Volume 6:3


Annie S. MacDonald was another well-known member of the Guild. “MacDonald came up with her own technique for modeled leatherwork, and she proceeded to teach this to any of the other class members [at the workshop of Walter B. Blaikie of A. & J.] who were interested. Annie MacDonald’s method of leather modeling did not involve cutting the leather, or raising the design into high relief, and it was done on the book after it was covered” (Tidcombe). It is believed that she bound Song of Solomon (#22).


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