A look at John Feely, Nineteenth Century Book Stamp Engraver

This is a guest post by Leslie Long, Preservation Specialist for the General Collections Conservation Section. Leslie conserves bound materials and pursues ongoing research in 19th century book cover illustration.

During the latter half of the 19th century, book publishers in Britain and the United States began to hire artists to design book covers. Advances in technology allowed for more affordable manufacturing of books and book cloth, so decorative bindings became more prevalent in the commercial market. Examples of these highly stylized engraved book covers exist in the General Collection at the Library of Congress. Many of which are attributed to notable stamp designer, John Feely.

John Feely was a nineteenth century book stamp engraver. He hand cut brass stamps to decorate the covers of cloth-covered books. Often he used an illustration from the text as inspiration for his cover stamp as in the case of Nut-cracker and Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1853), Rose and Her Pets by Elizabeth Dawes (1869), and Draining for Profit by George Waring (c.1867). Notice what details he altered or left out of each illustration to design a cover stamp that is dramatically simple.

I learned about John Feely and the whole fascinating world of nineteenth century book design from the gifted scholar and teacher Sue Allen, in her Rare Book School class called Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1830-1910. Since I took Allen’s class in 2007, I have been on a treasure hunt in the Library’s collections for beautiful book covers by the artists I learned about from her including Sarah Wyman Whitman, Margaret Armstrong, and John Feely. Colleagues Jackie Coleburn in the Rare Materials Section and Eric Frazier in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room along with now retired American History Specialist Rosemary Plakas, have worked with me to update the catalog records for hundreds of publishers’ bindings with designs by Whitman, Armstrong and Feely. Those that are in the general collections have been moved to the library’s special collections whenever possible.

In her article “Book-Cover Stamps Engraved by John Feely, 1842-1877” in Decorated Cloth in America (1994), Allen traces John Feely’s journey from Ireland where he was born around 1819, to London where a fifteen-volume set of Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems decorated with Feely stamps was published in 1842. By 1846, Allen found that Feely’s ads were appearing in New York City directories. He described himself in The American Advertiser (1851) as a “Designer and Engraver of Typographical and Bookbinding Ornaments”. Feely signed at least 109 of his more than 260 stamps with one of two monograms: either FEELY or JF joined together as if the two were one letter. Here are examples of both from the Library’s collections:

A hallmark of Feely’s engraving style is a squiggly line used to fill in the backgrounds of scenes or to serve as the ground on which people or animals are standing. Every Feely stamp that I have seen includes this – what Allen refers to as a “serpentine.” You can see the squiggly serpentine on the cover decoration for Shooting, Boating and Fishing by Thomas Robinson Warren published in New York by Scribner in 1871.

Shooting, Boating and Fishing by Thomas Robinson Warren, 1871
(John Feely design)

The efficient production of books for a middle class eager to buy them evolved rapidly during the nineteenth century. In the 1820s, the cloth-covered case binding was developed by English publisher William Pickering with bookbinder Archibald Leighton. The case binding, made separately from the text, allowed the cover to be decorated before cover and text were glued together.

In 1831, Leighton figured out how to size book cloth so that it could be gold stamped with an arming press. Sizing is the addition of a water resistant material (like gelatin) to stop paper or cloth from absorbing too much liquid, preventing ink and pigments from bleeding. The case binding could be machine made, taking work away from hand binders, except for fine leather bindings, whose front and back covers were laced onto the text separately, then covered with leather and decorated with heated hand tools. Fine leather bindings made by hand remained popular with those who could afford them through the early twentieth century, but the general transfer of power over the decoration of book covers from bookbinders to cover stamp engravers like John Feely naturally followed the development of the cloth case publisher’s binding.

Recessed into the cloth, the twenty-three karat gold used for cover stamping continues to gleam nearly two hundred years later. Book cover stamps were generic at first. A bowl of fruit could adorn the cover of a book about any subject. The cover of The Hyacinth, one of the many gift books of poems, prayers and uplifting thoughts popular in the nineteenth century, is decorated with one such stamped design. Brasses engraved with border decorations and with cupids, flowers, or fruit for the center decoration, could be combined for covers at the discretion of bookbinders who purchased them from engravers. In the 1840s, engravers like Feely began to tailor stamps for individual texts to meet publishers’ demands for a new level of artistry. Feely engraved brass stamps for fifty-two publishers during his working life.

Our Children’s Books. Country Scenes, c.1858.
(John Feely design)

Feely’s art can appear rustic and unsophisticated next to that of contemporary European cover stamps like those of John Leighton (great nephew of Archibald Leighton), but Feely’s stamps have an elegance and energy of their own. In the words of Sue Allen, “Each of his best stamps could be a little lighted stage scene.” Those scenes are sometimes landscapes, and sometimes they are portraits of noted individuals. The best ones, I think, are scenes of ordinary people going about everyday lives in Feely’s adopted homeland.

Sources for further reading on the topic:

Allen, Sue and Charles Gullans. Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers’ Bindings 1840-1910 UCLA, 1994.

Conparato, Frank E. Books for the Millions. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Company, 1971.

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2 Comments

  1. Joanna
    February 7, 2022 at 7:58 am

    A very neat glimpse into the world of book stamping! What is the best way to see other book stamp artists whose work is in the Library collection?
    Also, is the “peek inside the lab” in the further reading topics supposed to be linked?

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