Madcap Dorothy and the Art of Bookbinding


Women working at a bookbinding machine, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911

Pretty Madcap Dorothy or How  She Won A Lover: A Romance of the Jolliest Girl in the Book-Bindery, and a Magnificent Love Story of the life of a Beautiful, Willful New York Working Girl. The title pretty much says it all, but there’s more to this 1891 novel than you might think.

Chapter 1 sets the scene:
“It’s so hard for working-girls to get acquainted. They never meet a rich young man, and they don’t want a poor one. It seems to me that a girl who has to commence early to work for her living might just as well give up forever all hopes of a lover and of marrying,” declared Nadine Holt, one of the prettiest girls in the immense book-bindery…”

Having read several pages of the book, I can assure you that it gets even more dramatic from there. But how did Dorothy and her pals end up working as bookbinders in the first place? Was this really a profession a respectable girl took on? Yes it was, and it started much earlier than 1891.

I found an article in the New York Times from 1853 that discussed young women being employed in all aspects of bookbinding. The job allowed women an opportunity to make money to support their families and it gave them an alternative to the long hours and the low pay of working as a seamstress.

Herakles and the Eurystheusian 12-Step Program, Foolscap Press, 2007

By 1900, bookbinding had become an art that was practiced by ladies of wealth and leisure. Newspaper articles discussed the refinement of a fine binding and the care that went into creating it. They noted that women were perfectly suited to bookbinding because of their delicate hands and their love of beautiful things.

Bookbinding as an art form is still alive and well in 2012. Organizations like the Guild of Book Workers in the US and Designer Bookbinders in the UK offer their members opportunities to learn from masters in the field and to exhibit their work around the world.

TSCPL has a collection of handbound books. If you would like to see some of these books for yourself, contact Special Collections Librarian Brea Black at 785-580-4512 or to set up an appointment.


P.S. I found Pretty Madcap Dorothy on the Project Gutenberg website. If you’ve never visited, I highly recommend it. With over 39,000 free ebooks, there’s sure to be something that captures your attention.


Brea Black is the Art Librarian and Book Arts Curator in the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery. Her favorite thing is to share the wonderful world of artists' books with the community. She also leads the Arts & Crafts team and teaches workshops on bookmaking, altered books, and a variety of crafty topics.