Coffee Table Books: Their Origin, Precursors, And Rise to Popularity

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Every Christmas, I’m sure to unwrap coffee table books about a pop culture thing I’m obsessed with. I have Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You? and The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road and Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities now stashed away on my bookshelf to one day pull out and display. If you, like me, have ever stopped to wonder about the history of coffee table books, the answer is more complicated than you think. Let’s take a walk through book history to find out why it is we’re sure to get at least one of these books every holiday season.

“Nonbooks”

“I am vexed that my essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window…” writes Michel de Montaigne in his 1580 essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil, one of the first references to a book used as a decoration rather than one picked up and read. Later, in 1759, Laurence Sterne references Montaigne’s comment in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman saying his work would, “in the end, prove the very thing Montaigne dreaded his Essays should turn out, that is, a book for a parlor window” — books not used for reading, but rather for display.

Author of A History of Book Publishing in the United States John Tebbel says the coffee table book is a descendant of this kind of “nonbook,” which can be “traced back to the period after the American Civil War.” Christine Mary Elliott whose thesis explored the invention and rise in popularity of coffee table books says this term, nonbook, referred to collections of cartoons, photographs, and other “scissor and paste” anthologies. These collections were often displayed in parlors, purely for display and casual flipping-through.

A Time Magazine article noted an increase in the purchasing of these nonbooks in the 1950s when coffee table books (and coffee tables) rose to popularity. These nonbooks served as a precursor to the coffee table book you recognize today.

The Practice of Giving Books as Gifts

To explain the rise of coffee table books’ popularity, we also need to take detour into the history of book giving during the holidays. Elliott says, “books have been part of Christmas gift-giving as early as the eighteenth century.” According to Elliott, the first documented instance of a book given as a Christmas present was in 1796 when Martha Ballard wrote in her diary that she gave her son an almanac that morning.

Books, since then, have been a popular gift of choice. Almanacs, as recorded in that 1796 diary, dictionaries and encyclopedias were often-selected presents. Others, too, turned to decorative, flashier books with decorative edges, lavish bindings, and expensive engravings for the perfect thing to unwrap come Christmas morning. A Publishers Career recommends having a list of books to publish purely for the Christmas season since that’s when the “big sale” is.

books on table
Photo by Gui Avelar on Unsplash

Books as Decoration/Furniture

While books are often thought to have only the purpose of, well, reading, many early readers used books for “non-reading” purposes. Eustache Deschamps, a poet, mocked the practice of using books as accessories all the way back in the 14th century. The public’s preoccupation with judging what people do with their books only grew from there.

Horace Walpole, an English writer in the 1700s, even called booksellers “upholsterers,” a reference to the use of them as furnishing in rooms. Samuel Butler and Victor Hugo apparently made entire desks out of books in their lifetimes. Books, as it turns out, haven’t always been single-use objects.

Jeffrey Todd Knight, in “‘Furnished’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture,” explores how books were often used as spare paper for scribbling in the margins, documenting recipes, or turned into storage. “Within this taxonomic grey area between objects for reading and writing and objects for furnishing the home lie books,” he writes.

Sydney Smith, one of the founders of The Edinburgh Review, once said, “no furniture is so charming as books, even if you never open them, or read a single word.” And Henry Ward Beecher once said, “books are not made to furnish, but there’s nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.”

 Domestic Bookaflage

In the 1920s, society’s interactions with books changed. Before then, books were mostly utilized for their intended purposes. The rich and highly educated had the most access to books, while those in lower classes found books harder to come by. After, however, more and more people saw them as ways to showcase their personalities and their character without having to ever open the front cover.

Megan Benton in her article, “‘Too Many Books’: Book Ownership and Cultural Identity in the 1920s” writes, “for centuries the books lining one’s library walls had not only testified to one’s wealth, education, and leisure but had also offered a rich and broadly under-stood cultural vocabulary that articulated their owners’ character, beliefs, and values.”

The post-war 1920s became a period of consumption, especially of material goods. At the same time, print production and distribution enabled printed media to become more accessible for all walks of society. In the year 1920, 6,000 books were published. By 1929, the annual total was up to 10,000.

Books were treated more as things that could both provide entertainment or convey an impression on neighbors who visited the home. Emily Post even instructed readers on how to “create fake bindings for decorative purposes” by covering ugly covers with false, more attractive ones. This practice was dubbed “bookaflage” for the way books were used to hide homeowners under a more pretentious, cultured image for those who visited their home.

Even in The Great Gatsby, this concept of displaying books to achieve the impression of intelligence is referenced. “Alluding to the practice of gluing variously hued book spines to boards inserted within shelving as a quick shortcut to a home library, a drunken guest at Jay Gatsby’s mansion marveled incredulously that the books in Gatsby’s Gothic library were ‘absolutely real – have pages and everything.'” Later, “we are told, the library appeared to have been imported intact from a European estate; the books were real but literally unreadable, making Gatsby’s ownership of them was as inauthentic as if they had been mere cardboard facades.”

Photo Books and Art Books

Another precursor to coffee table books, photobooks began publication in the 1800s. Technological advancements allowed the reproduction of images onto paper, thus spurring the first The Pencil of Nature installment in 1844. In doing so he brought the photo book to actualization and set a significant precedent for what was to become a new space for photography.

Then art books came into being in the early 1900s. Publishing company Phaidon began publishing large-format art books, starting with Van Gogh in 1935. This large size and display of visual material became a segue into the modern coffee table book we know today.

Naming the Coffee Table Book

According to InstaScribe, “history, or at least the British variation of it, proves that the Brits have been using the expression ‘coffee table book’ since the 1800s.” Americans, however, attribute it to David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club that published environmental coffee table books in their Exhibit Format series published post World War II.

Elliott documents finding the term “coffee-table book” in the digital archives of The New York Times, in a review of the history coffee table book The Past We Share: An Illustrated History of the British and American Peoples on December 24, 1960.

While the concept of the coffee table book, as discussed above, wasn’t necessarily new in 1960, the name was. They were previously called nonbooks, parlor books, or sometimes grand piano books for the very same reason the term coffee table book came to be.

The practice of naming objects after “domestic features” wasn’t a new thing. Closet dramas, gothic novels, drawing room comedies, kitchen sink dramas, locked room detective novels, and more took their titles from the places, or things, they occurred on. Coffee table books were no different.

The Coffee Table

The popularity of coffee tables, which these books are named after, can be attributed to the rise in popularity in central heating in the 1960s, as furniture no longer had to be arranged around the fireplace.

These tables were mass-produced at the time, too. That, in combination with a newly open living room space to fill with something other than a mantle, coffee tables rose to popularity in the post-war era.

Additionally, living room spaces became less formal and more casual in this time with many activities centered on the coffee table like reading magazines, eating dinner, playing board games, drinking coffee, watching television, and, of course, displaying coffee table books.

Rise in Popularity

A combination of the rise of the coffee table, the technological advances that enabled photo and art books, the ability to mass produce books, society’s book hunger, and the already-established use of bookaflage all collided post–World War II to skyrocket coffee table books into popularity.

At the same time, environmentally focused books like Brower’s In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World, published by the Sierra Club, emerged as a response to the Wilderness Act, introduced in 1956, that established a national wilderness system on federal lands and provided protection to wild places. It took eight years for the Act to be signed into law, creating a market for Brower and other’s environment-focused coffee table books as a way to engage the public in the fight.

Scorn in Society

Despite their popularity, coffee table books were (and still are) scorned by some for their purely visual, “nonbook” status. The term “coffee table book” was sometimes used derogatorily in the 1960s, stigmatized because they were used to convey an image rather than actually read. In the same vein, “booklovers and intellectuals” resented the growing attitudes towards books, with a sense that “‘good’ books and their owners had been betrayed in the era’s preoccupation with frivolous and pretentious uses of books.”

An entire three-volume history of the photo book “does not include coffee-table books based on the type of photographs they regard as evoking aspiration rather than inspiration.” Coffee table books are excluded based on “artistic value”, seen as lesser than their serious photo book cousins.

The Allure of Coffee Table Books

One of the most alluring aspects of coffee table books is the ability to bring previously expensive and intellectually protected topics into the hands of the everyday person.

Ernest Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published in 1950, served as a way to expose those outside the privileged class to scholarly art at an affordable price. Phaidon’s The Art Book, published in 1994, introduced a wide range of major artwork to a broader audience that would never have been able to view it in person. It features 500 images of classic and modern artwork for the masses.

Coffee table books have the ability to expose large audiences to previously thought out-of-reach topics ranging from classical art to psychics to architecture, often for under $100. For anyone unable to take courses, attend museums, or access resources due to paywalls, coffee-table books serve a great way to experience these things.

Andrew Brown in “Art History and Its Publishers” says, “I’m sitting here today because of a coffee-table book that I picked up when I was fifteen. And I have been trained in art history because of a coffee-table book.” And I’m sure many, many more people experienced the same thing. What we see when we are young is how we know what is available to us when we get older. Coffee table books allow glimpses, however temporary, into new possibilities.

Coffee table books, according to psychologists, trigger memories of reading oversized picture books as children, which is another aspect of their appeal. Additionally, as seen in the popularity of “bookaflage” in the 1920s, we use books to showcase our personalities. Coffee table books happen to be a great and beautiful way to do just that. In an interview in HYPEBEAST, the coffee table book publisher MENDO says, “our customers range from the businessman who wants a statement piece in his foyer, to the art student who has to save up for a book. One thing holds true for all the different type of customers; books contribute to defining and propagating their personality.”

MENDO also says, “the key is the collectible appeal. Books are a counterweight in a world that is increasingly becoming digital. What we notice more and more, is people’s awareness that a choice of coffee table book defines personal style, taste and preference.”

Conclusion

Coffee table books continue to be published year after year on nearly every topic you can think of. Do you want a book dedicated to the damage children can do? Try Sh*t My Kids Ruined: An A–Z Celebration of Kid-Destruction. Do you want a book of literary tattoos? Check out The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos From Bookworms World Wide. How about a compilation of truly awful haircuts of the past? Bad Hair is the one for you. There’s even The Coffee Table Book of Coffee Table Books! Want recent recommendations? Check out this list of some published in 2019.

Regardless of your interests, there’s sure to be a coffee table book out there for you. And now you know the long history of how they came to be.

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