Heath’s Book of Beauty, 1833
Victorians were known for their gift-giving culture. The gift book was considered a popular item to present for a variety of occasions. These books were highly prized for their beautiful illustrations, decorative bindings, embossed leather covers, gilt edges, and exquisite prose. They allowed Victorians to have access to fine art images and literature that was considered morally suitable especially for women of all ages. Gift books were often given for holidays (especially Christmas), courtship rituals, and even fundraisers. Titles for books of this sort regularly alluded to gift-giving and were named after an object which could be given as a token of affection or appreciation like: The Rose, The Gift, The Christmas Box, The Pearl, The Rosette, and The Rosebud.
Gift books were considered not only items of luxury, but also as indications of status due to their high cost. Even with the expensive price tag, the writing was occasionally mediocre and criticized by some as being superficial. There were instances when some of literature’s great masters were collectively represented in books of this genre. Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gift were both considered very popular gift books during this time period.
Heath’s Book of Beauty, a gift book found in McCain Library, is dedicated to Mrs. Edward Lytton Bulwer by the editor, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who was a Romantic era poet. It was published in 1833, by the engraver Charles Heath. Heath, a master engraver, was responsible for the publication and collaboration of many other gift books and for his reputation of using steel plates rather than copper for engraving. He used steel plates over copper because steel was more durable and allowed him to produce larger images in publications.
Heath’s Book of Beauty is just one gift book that can be found in Special Collections at McCain Special Collections and Archives. Other gift books that can be viewed in McCain’s Wood’s Rare Book collection include The Atlantic Souvenir, The Token, The Gift, and The Keepsake. To view Heath’s Book of Beauty or any other gift book, visit the 3rd floor of McCain Library and Archives. The call number is SpColl AY13.B7 1833. For more information, e-mail Jennifer Brannock, or call 601.266.4347.
International League of Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. (2012). “The American Gift Book, Part One & Two: the Content of Gift books”.
The University of Maryland: Romantic Circles. (2012). “L.E.L’s “Verses” and The Keepsake for 1829.”
Edinburgh University Library. (2004). Walter Scott: “Charles Heath”.
Text by Bernadette Birzer, Library and Information Science Graduate Student