|The Mosher Press||Printing History|
[S]mall, modest and inexpensive, they were bought by thousands of literate men and women whose pleasure in reading was enhanced by fine paper, good workmanship, and an unassuming and quiet typographic elegance. (-8-)Most of the presses that flourished at the turn of the century were the product of youthful enthusiasm. Their founders were longer on idealism than business experience, and consequently the majority lasted but a few years. Mosher sustained his "program of splendid literary output" (-9-) until his death in 1923, and was succeeded by his long-time, able secretary, Flora Lamb. Although, to provide a welcome income, he published such standard chestnuts of the period as the Rubáiyát and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (over 15,000 copies of the Sonnets were printed in ten different editions), his lasting contribution is his resurrection of little-known works that were out of print or that had been issued in such limited English editions that the American public never had a chance to discover them. His interests ranged widely-from Michelangelo's Sonnets to Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies to Yeats' The Land of Heart's Desire, from Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince to Whitman's Memories of President Lincoln. This eclecticism sometimes led him to ignore the right of prior publication, although he paid modest "royalties" to the authors whose works he published without permission. It was such insouciance that earned him the well-deserved sobriquet of "pirate." (-10-) Mosher delighted in controversy. (There is no such thing as bad publicity!) When threatened by Hilaire Belloc with legal action should he publish another unauthorized version of Belloc's work, Mosher went ahead anyway, and there the matter rested. Much has been made, at that time and since, of Mosher's piracy, but the fact remains that were it not for Mosher these works would not have been available to the public. Because he was not a designer, Mosher adapted many graphic elements from books that he admired, modifying them until they met his exacting standards. If the label "pirate" has to be attached to his name, it should be because he rarely acknowledged the British artists Laurence Housman, Herbert Home, Lucien Pissarro, and Charles Ricketts among them) whose decorations and floriated initials he appropriated. American graphic artists, however, fared better with Mosher, since he paid them for their work: the young Bruce Rogers, who later called Mosher the "Aldus of the XIX Century," received two of his earliest commissions from Mosher, as did Frederic Goudy, who designed covers for the Vest Pocket Series and for the Old World Series, (-11-) along with Thomas Maitland Cleland and Earl Stetson Crawford. Mosher's influence on the art of the book was greater on contemporary commercial publishers than on the private presses of the day. The success of his books proved that a book could be beautifully designed yet inexpensive and that there was an avid public for these books. Literary publishers such as Copeland and Day and Stone and Kimball, as well as commercial publishers like Houghton, Mifflin and Company, issued carefully designed books that united typography, page make-up, and the spare use of decoration in an elegant whole; their debt to Mosher is indisputable. As A. E. Newton remarked, "Our printers owe as much to Mosher as to Morris." (-12-) This debt is evident in the work of later presses, such as Hal and Violet Trovillion's Trovillion Private Press (1908-1958) (-13-) , Peter Beilenson's Peter Pauper Press, (-14-) and E. B. Thompson's Hawthorn Press. Today, the style of most private presses owes more to Mosher's restrained elegance than to Morris's "pocket cathedrals."
(-1-) Definitions of what is a private press abound, and there is disagreement about whether Mosher belongs to that group, but surely Will Ransom's statement applies here: "A private press may be defined as the typographic expression of an ideal, conceived in freedom and maintained in independence" (Will Ransom, Private Presses and Their Books. NY: R. R. Bowker, 1929, p. 22). The fact that Mosher used commercially available fonts and entrusted the printing of his books (under his supervision) to commercial printers disqualifies him, in the eye of some critics, from the group of private press owners. But Morris employed pressmen, Ricketts' Vale Press books were printed by Ballantyne, and many private presses (among them Vincent and Caradoc in England, Blue Sky and Cranbrook in the United States) used commercial fonts. [Back]
(-2-) James G. Nelson. The Early Nineties: A View from The Bodley Head. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 65. See also William S. Peterson. The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1991, p. 38. [Back]
(-3-) Roderick Cave. The Private Presses. NY: R. R. Bowker, 1983, p. 111, quoting Holbrook Jackson's 1938 address to the Double Crown Club. [Back].
(-4-) Susan Otis Thompson. American Book Design and William Morris. NY: R. R. Bowker, 1977, pp. 10-11. [Back]
(-5-) Keith G. Huntress. "Thomas Bird Mosher: A Bibliographical and Literary Study" (unpublished dissertation), Urbana: University of Illinois, 1942, p. 137. [Back]
(-6-) Richard Le Gallienne, a friend and author of Mosher's, began his career as a reader for the Bodley Head. [Back] (-7-) Annie H. Matthews. Thomas Bird Mosher of Portland, Maine. Portland: The Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1942, p. 1. [Back]
(-8-) Joseph Blumenthal. The Printed Book in America. Boston: David R. Godine, 1977, p. 41. [Back]
(-9-) Blumenthal, ibid. [Back]
(-10-) A sobriquet that he would have amply earned solely for his appropriation of successful designs, as in the case of the Garland of Rachel (originally published by the Daniel Press) or in the case of his facsimile of the Kelmscott Hand and Soul, which he thought superior to Morris's (Strouse, op. cit., 1962, p. 65. [Back]
(-11-) For the Old World Series, Mosher had asked Goudy to match the lettering designed by Rogers for the title page: D. J. R. Bruckner. Frederic Goudy. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, p. 48. [Back]
(-12-) A. E. Newton. The Book-Collecting Game. Boston: Little, Brown, 1928, quoted in the foreword to the 1929 Mosher catalogue. [Back]
(-13-) Alan M. Cohn, the compiler of a checklist to a 1959 exhibition at the Southern Illinois University Library in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of The Trovillion Private Press, mentions that " 'Dear Old Tom' as Trovillion called him ... was an early influence on the Trovillions." [Back]
(-14-) "Mosher's work was well-known and loved by me when I started… Mosher, Rogers et al, were looking backward at earlier periods of printing (as did architects and other designers in the early 1900s) and I-with reservations-looked back at the lookers." Peter Beilenson, quoted by Franklin P. Lincoln in the Dec. 6, 1962 Press Herald (Portland). [Back]
The above is Chapter 2 from Vilain & Bishop's Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1992, pp. 5-7, and is here reprinted with permission from the publisher.