[Queen] Elizabeth [I] appears chiefly to have affected embroidered and velvet bindings, if we may judge from the remains of her library, and from the account of the books, which Paul Hentzner, a native of Brandenburg, saw at Whitehall, when travelling in this country, in August, 1598. These books, he tells us, in his Itinerarium, were all bound in velvet of different colours, although chiefly red, with clasps of gold and silver; some having pearls and precious stones set in their bindings…
The Binding of Books, by Herbert P Horne, Chapter 8
Queen Elizabeth’s velvet library is well known in bookbinding circles, almost as well known as the history of binding in human skin1, but it’s rarely mentioned outside of them. The few examples we have left are quite spectacular2 indeed3.
Why did one of the most learned and literate of rulers in European history favor such a fragile binding material? Unlike leather-bound books, which wear the better for being read, velvet will become crushed and grubby with handling. Was it a subtle version of “math is hard”, letting rivals underrate the woman with the pretty library? Did the sheer tactile pleasure of holding the books override practicality? No one knows.
And what will be the velvet bindings of our day? (I vote for glued-spine hardcover books, myself).