A Passionate Publisher and a Collector’s Zeal

His ability to combine the two enthusiasms [love of literature & fine printing] in a long series of titles published at modest prices is what makes him an enduring figure in the history of American bookmaking…had disseminated his books wider than any private press, while investing in them a degree of personal conviction no trade publisher could possibly emulate.

– Susan Otis Thompson in The Art That is Life,
and author of the newly republished
American Book Design and William Morris.

Collecting the books of the Portland, ME publisher has always meant more to me than just acquiring the books themselves. It has enabled me to come across the fine phrase, the elevated thought, and to touch and feel the products of a mind bent toward beauty. They enable me to touch a world within, all amidst an outer world of common concerns, arbitrary outcomes, and tragedy. Collecting “Mosher” was, and is, for me a spiritual exercise which not only led to the assembling what may be the world’s finest collection in private hands, but also brought me closer to the spark that ignited the publisher’s need to give to the world these out-of-the-way gems of the literary pen. As the onetime foremost Mosher collector, Norman Strouse, once said of Mosher, “a few candles still burn reverently at his alter.” I like to think that I read by such candlelight, and strive to make it a more open flame for others.

Along the way toward building the collection, I have learned a few things on how to go about this business of collecting. I say “business” because it takes some calculation and risk. And I say “building” a collection, because collecting is much more than sheer amassing. Anyone can be a buyer and accumulate a ton of stuff simply because one has the money or the will power to get, buy, and get some more. But to build, to construct, a collection, one has to have a certain focus and direction in proceeding with certain goals in mind.

The acquisition of my first Mosher book had to wait for the right time and place in my life. I always enjoyed buying books, and even fancied myself a “collector” when I put together a relatively small assemblage of collected works of English and continental philosophers. I didn’t have the resources to collect first editions of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibnitz, or Descartes, but I was able to purchase first or early collected works in splendid editions. I’d also buy the ‘works’ of other lesser philosophical thinkers. In doing so, I felt that I was getting more bang-for-the- buck in having so many texts in one set, while still getting the “feel” of a 17th or 18th century book.

I remember visiting a New York bookdealer, Samuel Orlinick of Scientific Libraries. It was there that I bought my first important, and expensive, piece of philosophy, Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan (the “bear edition” London, 1651, but actually printed a bit later). Some colleagues and I then visited a collector of Aesop’s fables, and while looking over that collection, I was asked what I collect. I took out The Leviathan and proudly replied, “Philosophy.” Upon further questioning the Aesop collector told me, “Oh no, dear fellow, you’re not a collector, you’re just a buyer.” I thought that some kind of snub, but I didn’t really understand the import of his remark until I became a collector of the publisher, Thomas Bird Mosher.

The Mosher Story

“Old Moshwig,” as Falconer Madan charmingly called him, was indeed a unique romantic figure in the American publishing scene around the turn of the 19th/20th Century. Even Robert Frost felt a powerful urge to write his biography. Regrettably he never did.

Mosher was the son of a sea captain, and traveled with Captain Ben Mosher and his family for several years (1866-1870) around the world. His formal education was slight, but as Christopher Morley once noted, he was “an uneducated man, as uneducated as Chaucer and Lamb and Conrad.” Mosher’s own serious start in book collecting came when his father purchased for him a special color-illustrated copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress while in London. A little later Mosher acquired the now famous 34-volume set of Bell’s British Theatre (London, 1791-99) from which he read aboard ship when

… only a faint and oily lamp swung in the lonely cabin; the plunging ship midst ocean’s grey and solitary waste, and the long wintry passage around Cape Horn.

Bell’s B T first opened the treasure trove of literature to the lad who would one day be known in far corners of the world as “the Prince of Publishers.”

The publishing career of Mosher began in 1891 with the printing of George Meredith’s Modern Love. By 1900 he had brought out 175 books, and by the end of his career in 1923, over 780 publications would grace the homes of collectors from California to as far away as England, Australia, and India. Fourteen different series, with names like Old World, English Reprint, Lyric Garland, and Miscellaneous Series, would promote the lesser known works of Britain’s national literature by such authors as William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Fiona Macleod (a.k.a. William Sharp), Walter Pater, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Many other British writers would see their lesser known works find their way to an American public, printed in felicitous format and dressed in fine paper binding. Some were even brought out in first editions, or at least first American editions.

Today most scholars know Mosher through his small literary magazine, The Bibelot (1895-1915), and for the piracy controversy in which he was embroiled. Andrew Lang led the charge in reaction to Mosher’s publication of Aucassin & Nicolete in 1895. Some of Britain’s authors and publishers would continue to denounce “The Portland Pirate” through the years, but in actuality Mosher only took advantage of his legal rights to publish British authors whose work was either not protected under the International Copyright Law of 1891, or who chose not to follow the procedures to copyright their work in the United States (or through their publisher’s neglect to do so). Moreover, British publishers hated the fact that Mosher was turning out beautifully printed works at a fraction of the cost of a comparable printing in England, overseas shipping included! Yet many English authors were pleased that, through Mosher’s efforts, they were at least gaining exposure to the new American public. And just like today, controversy sells books, and Mosher profited from the attacks upon his firm. Despite the piracy charges, Mosher led a long and distinguished publishing career, attracting a loyal and devoted following with a mailing list of about 17,000 customers.

A Collector’s Beginnings

I was drawn to the Mosher books in 1985 after beginning what some would call a “change of life” or a “career crisis.” I still think upon it as a spiritual re-awakening, a refusal to lie to myself anymore, and a need for inner discovery. Sounds New Age, and in some respects it was, but I just knew that I had to be able to squeeze more out of life than I was at the time. It was also the first time that visions of death would haunt me. A non-world of eternal silence beckoned. Enter the creative arts, writing poetry, first readings Walt Whitman, examining mystic traditions, composing for the piano, and writing endless letters. Exit a boring fifteen year college administrative job.

I also re-discovered, in a little Lancaster, PA bookstore called The Book Haven, a little stash of books I had seen there countless times and which first had been introduced to me by the proprietor who took some pleasure in their presence. The pile never grew bigger or diminished. It was just there, unread, apparently unappealing to the used book-buying public. I picked up one of these dainties from Mosher’s Old World Series, and there for the first time read the words of England’s Thoreau, in The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies. “My god, he’s saying some of the things I’m feeling.” My delight became so captivating that I swooped up all nine of the little Old Worlds and hurriedly made my way to the owner, plunked down the requisite cash, and scooted out the door with the owner’s words, “See, I told you…” trailing in the background. So began a marvelous venture into first acquiring, then amassing, then collecting, then becoming a serious collector, and then constructing a research collection, no equal of which is believed to be in private hands.

Building a Press Collection

There are many avenues I took to build my Mosher collection, and I suppose most of these would apply to any press collection of any notable strength. Most involve knowing where you’re going, and with whom you’re going.

Like all architectural structures, one needs the plans to begin seeing what brick goes where. In book collecting that blueprint is the bibliography, the organization of a certain field of books into a comprehensive whole, defining the parameters while spotlighting the individual works. In some cases the collector doesn’t have a bibliography to go by, making it tougher, but not impossible, to proceed. After all, many a fine collection has become the nucleus for a new bibliography. In the case of the Mosher books, it has been Benton Hatch’s A Check List of the Publications of Thomas Bird Mosher… To date, this is the only detailed source available. I can’t begin to count the number of copies I’ve seen with collector’s notes or check marks beside entries. “Got this one,” I could hear them remark, “Found that one too.” To find what bibliographies exist around your own area of collecting, consult Theodore Besterman’s A World Bibliography of Bibliographies found in most libraries, or ask your librarian to do an OCLC Search.

The Mosher books are some of the scarcer press books, but I have noticed that it has become equally hard to find many of the other small and private presses. It’s helpful to not only shake the bushes for single books (at book fairs, through dealer catalogues, visiting bookshops, searching the Internet, etc.), but also be open to purchasing whole collections as well, either privately or at auction. I bought three collections privately. Of course, the money for such can be a problem, but if you divide the number of books into the overall cost, many times you’ll be surprised as to how little you’re really paying. Buying another person’s collection comes with other advantages as well. That collector spent a considerable amount of time assembling his or her own collection, and there are usually several highlights that you’d spend years trying to track down, if ever. It also provides you with the opportunity to upgrade copies of books in your collection. So, when it comes to buying a small to medium sized collection, my advise is to buckle down and do it!

Another important measure to take is to find a dealer(s) with whom you feel comfortable and who you judge knows something about your area of collecting. I can’t over emphasize the importance of this step. For me, there was a small handful of dealers who spent time with me and knew what I was after. They became my staunchest allies, and would let me know of books coming onto the market, or would call me with quotes.

For me, my leading supporter was Thomas Boss Fine Books of Boston, MA.. I still clearly remember being introduced to Tom Boss by phone though an East Coast ABAA dealer. I remember seeing the most beautifully bound copy of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean I had ever seen, and it was in a catalogue soley devoted to books printed on pure vellum (Mosher printed more books on pure vellum than any other American publisher of the time—a total of 47 from 1898-1913). The price was astronomically high, at least I had never paid several thousand dollars for a single book before. But through the dealer-to-dealer introduction, we were able to come to satisfactory terms, allowing me to make payments while Boss held onto the book. This was the start of a good, ongoing relationship which brought many a fine purchase my way.

Another dealer, now deceased, for whom I still have the warmest feelings, is Francis M. O’Brien of Portland, ME. Certainly the dean of Maine booksellers, if not all of New England (though George Goodspeed must certainly share in that honorific title), Francis was attuned to my Mosher enthusiasm. And lucky for me, he helped to move the Mosher library back in 1948 and managed to save some of the items the auction house wanted to discard. Thank god, for it was through Francis that I was able to gather unique items: Mosher’s desk diaries, scrapbooks, and original source books torn apart for the printer–filled with notes and directions in Mosher’s hand. And yet another New England source took eight years of my persistent attention. I was finally I able to pry loose a box of manuscript material which I’m still in the process of sorting and cataloguing.

Cesi Kellinger of Chambersburg, PA, was yet another dealer for whom I’ll always have kind thoughts. We were directed to her by an area bookstore. A phone call determined she might have some Mosher material. My wife and I visited her home, and as we were being led out back to a large shed, she said “I think I have four or five books from Mosher’s library.” I turned around to my wife, widely grinning beneath my raised eyebrows. Four or five? After hours in that mid-January cold shed, we mined about 45 books with Mosher’s bookplate! After several more trips, we found almost a hundred books. From such stuff a collector’s dreams are made.

But a word of warning to the wise. If you turn down dealers a few times, don’t expect them to keep calling you. Bookselling is a business, and a book dealer doesn’t stay in that business by giving free information to no avail. And if this is a favored dealer, then please, by all means, don’t be a cheapskate and turn down a piece you feel is a tad bit overpriced. My experience has been that, over the long haul, you’ll come out ahead. I’ve paid some stiff prices to one dealer for a few things, but can hardly count the number of great “deals” that came in between.

Mosher Collection Highlights

There are certain books a collector will want to find in building a Mosher collection. Of course, the whole list could be quite lengthy, but here are a few which one would do well to get now. I can’t possibly deal with all an edition’s printings on Van Gelder paper, Japan vellum, and pure vellum, so I’m basically limiting my remarks to the more common Van Gelder copies in VG-F condition.

A collector should still be able to pick up a decent copy of Mosher’s first reprint, George Meredith’s Modern Love (1891) for around $125-$150.

Then there are two Kelmscott look-a-likes: D. G. Rossetti’s Hand and Soul (1899), and Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna (1900). The opening two-page spreads with Kelmscott boarders are quite exquisite. Following closely behind is a book which closely mirrors its Vale Press counterpart, The Blessed Damozel (1901) with its large, lead initials designed by Charles Ricketts.

Another Morris related book which often goes unnoticed and undervalued is itself significant in that it’s a first American edition. This is William Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1900). It’s one of Mosher’s larger sized reprints, and the opening page to Chapter One is indeed striking. I just picked one up for $45 recently. If I were selling it, I’d ask $150 or more, depending on condition.

A little sleeper, but certainly important in the graphics world, is A.E.’s (i.e., George Russell) Homeward: Songs By The Way (1895). Not only is this a first edition of many of George Russell’s poems, but it is also one of the first books with Bruce Rogers’s designs, and the first to carry this famous American’s designer’s name in a colophon and his initials in the design. I have seen fine copies of this fragile book go for $150- $200 if you can even find a copy!

One of Mosher’s highlights is The Germ which I discuss just a little later on, but I just can’t help but mention here that I found a pure vellum copy (a limited pure vellum printing of only four copies) which the world renown Pre-Raphaelite scholar, Dr. William E. Fredeman, has called “Mosher’s black orchid… which is a magnificent specimen of book production” and this particular copy is bound by one of the top exhibition binding finishers of the period, Leonard Mounteney! I just don’t have the heart to say what this $7,500 book cost me.

Another sleeper which it might be best to get your hands on before the dealers wake up, is Swinburne’s A Year’s Letters (1901). It’s not only a first American, but it’s the first edition ever in book form. You should be able to get it for around $75 until someone catches on.

There are several Mosher books which have absolutely exquisite book cover designs, and which are particularly tough to get in fine condition: Fancy’s Following by Anodos, i.e., Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1900); Fragilia Labilia by John Addington Symonds (1902) and Primavera : Poems by Four Authors (1900). All three of these volumes carry lovely art nouveau cover designs by the little known Isadore B. Paine. Fine copies will cost $85 or more. Another volume of note for its striking cover design is Mimes by Marcel Schwob and translated into English by A. Lenalie (1901). The attractive gold and violet cover is by American designer, Earl Stetson Crawford, and copies typically go for $50-$75, but surely not much longer.

Though not the typical Mosher book, his facsimile of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1919) is the first facsimile of the 1855 text ever printed, and it’s true to its predecessor right down to the remarkable green duplicate binding! Copies go for $150, but I’ve seen some on occasion for under $90.

The last two books I’ll mention are Edward Calvert’s Ten Spiritual Designs (1913), and a book of Blake’s woodcuts. Calvert was a student of William Blake, and the illustrations pictured in the special portfolio section are quite charming and alluring. Prices on this book have been climbing steadily, and I regularly see copies for $375 or more. Lastly, there is the curious William Blake’s XVII Designs to Thornton’s Virgil (1899). These original woodcuts (the only woodcuts Blake ever did) are haunting and are here reproduced en masse for the first time since their original appearance in 1821. Furthermore, the book contains early designs by Selwyn Image and Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo. two early exponents of England’s Arts & Crafts Movement. The book usually goes for $125-$175.

There are so many more Mosher books I could point out, but space will not permit. The many different Rubáiyáts, a first edition by Bertrand Russell called A Free Man’s Worship (1923), the captivating Mosher catalogues, the many designs and 19th – early 20th century texts all await the collector of The Mosher Books.

Some Other Collecting Advice

Here are some further points I’d like to make pertaining to one’s collecting strategy. If you’re going to build a collection, then (1) go after at least some of the more expensive stuff first, (2) risk breaking a self-imposed spending barrier, (3) seek to put several anchors in your collection, (4) convert to importance of condition, and (5) build alliances with fellow collectors.

When I first started collecting some of the more important Mosher editions, the first reprint of the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, The Germ, could be obtained for $50, Today the same book printed on Van Gelder paper, in VG-F condition goes for $175-$250. It’s a beautiful book, and believe me, the price hasn’t hit the ceiling to which it’s destined to climb.

Some collectors never allow themselves to go beyond a certain price limit. I’ve seen this work to their detriment and to my gratification time and time again. Because they weren’t willing to spend above $20-$30 (or refused to pay an extra $10 above what they thought the price should be), a dealer would learn about me and my willingness to pay more for fine quality. Offers routed to me and away from them. In some instances, even my own self-imposed price ceilings would fall by the wayside, and I began to look differently at books I once said I’ll only purchase if below $200. Ask yourself, are they unique in some way –an association copy or exquisite binding? Is the condition impeccable? Once I began to break my own barriers, I started acquiring things which today I look back upon with a smug smile and a shake my head in disbelief over the small price I paid for such an incredibly good item. Believe me, once you break the $200 barrier, and then the $500 barrier, and so on, just look about yourself and you’ll see that you don’t live in debtor’s prison. Bibliomania can be controlled, and you’ll still have your sanity, along with one marvelous collection you can return to in enjoyment time and time again at your own discretion.

What do I mean about putting anchors into your collection? Well, while you’re on your way to breaking some of those self-imposed barriers, you can begin to acquire some special items. A collection is just ho-hum until you’re able to place within it some items of an extra-ordinary nature. For my own collection, I’m afraid of sinking the ship because there are now so many “anchors” attached to it, I think I’ll have to dry-dock! The Marius was the first anchor with it’s severely limited pure vellum printing and exquisite exhibition binding by Toof & Co. It’s photo-illustrated in Otto Zahn’s monograph, On Art Binding (Memphis, TN: Toof & Co, 1904) prepared for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis. To this I have added a number of other fine bindings on Mosher books by Zaehnsdorf, Monastery Hill, William Cushing Bamburgh, Hugo Peller, and American female binders like Florence Foote and Elizabeth Utley.

I have also managed to find many of the original books that the publisher himself edited and notated for the printer who produced the Mosher reprints. Add to this a large collection of manuscript material, of books actually written out in Mosher’s hand, a stash of a scholar’s research material written on Mosher’s early life, over 250 books from Mosher’s library (many with personal inscriptions or other associations, and with Mosher’s notes), several unique Mosher books, personal diaries, the publisher’s scrapbooks, and you’re on your way to building a collection that has research potential for generations to come. All of this supports the over 2,000+ Mosher books in very good to fine condition in the collection. It now has a depth to it that far and away ranks it with some of the finest ever assembled, like Norman Strouse’s collection. The value to future researchers is enormous. In fact, to help utilize my collection’s own research potential, I’ve written a new Mosher bibliography and have compiled the first-ever listing of just about all the books Mosher had in his personal library. I’m looking forward to publication in 1998, and I hope it will help set straight Mosher’s historic place in American publishing, and in showing the dissemination of England’s national literature throughout her one-time colony and the rest of the world.

Some people say condition isn’t just important, it’s everything. For the most part I wholeheartedly agree, at least for press books or modern firsts. If you buy a book in fine condition, and keep it that way, the book’s value will hold or even increase. Once a marred copy, always a marred copy. And what you buy with flaws, you have to sell with flaws. Besides, the original publisher –and this holds especially true with press books– intended the book to have a certain look. A Mosher Press book with tattered covers was not the way the publisher originally intended the public to see that book. I’ve gone so far as to say that a Mosher book in fine condition is a pleasure to behold, but there’s nothing uglier than a beat up, browned, and sullied copy of one of his books. Maybe I’m overstating it, but I certainly do react differently to a poor copy than I do to a pristine one. There is an exception, however, and that’s when the copy is important for reasons other than it’s condition, e.g., an association copy, inscribed copy, or a copy from a famous library. I might also exempt a copy with a clean text-block slated for fine binding.

When Collectors Turn Friends

Imagine two Mosher book collectors being introduced by letter, and who schedule their first meeting at a city train station, only realizing too late that they have no idea what the other looks like! This happened to a Philadelphia publisher and me. Jean-François Vilain was coming by train to Lancaster, PA. I drove to meet him there, but how was he to recognize me, and I him, through the crowds getting off the train. I decided to take along one of Mosher’s Old World Series books, and held it up as passengers disembarked. “No, that’s not him, nor that person,” I’d remark to myself. Another train arrives and I once again go through the routine. Then in the crowd I saw a somewhat diminutive fellow with a shoulder bag. And quite independent of my scheme, this fellow was reservedly waiving a little Mosher book before him, just as I was. The incident created some incredulous laughter, and I’m sure we’ll never forget that first meeting.

Over the next few years we were each able to collect our share of Mosher books. Jean-François collects all areas of the American fine printing movement, and wrote several articles, including on the Mosher Press. Later we decided to pool our resources along with Temple University to produce a Mosher exhibition in summer 1992, and we co-authored the extensive exhibit catalogue, Thomas Bird Mosher & the Art of the Book. Over the years we have both alerted one another to items for sale, and sometimes even went together to make joint Mosher purchases. He even managed, to my everlasting chagrin, to pry loose a Mosher book, extra- illuminated by Clara Chipman Newton (of Rookwood Pottery fame). But even though it still smarts, it’s the focus of a friendly banter between us. Jean- François continues to write articles; he’s even written the foreword to the new edition of Susan Otis Thompson’s William Morris and American Book Design, and he has been a steady reader of my manuscript for the new Mosher bibliography. The book-collectors-turned- friend relationship has meant much to us both, and our respective collections have only benefited from our friendship. I can’t help but feel that it is important for collectors to assist one another. Good heavens, we occupy a small enough, esoteric world as it is. Even if you don’t form a lasting friendship, it’s at least good to know what your fellow competition is doing. I know of other collectors who are always helping one another out, a kind of buddy system which work especially well if they don’t collect the same thing. As for me, if I don’t soon get that Clara Chipman Newton book back, *~?*#-! ?

Philip R. Bishop operates MOSHER BOOKS, in Millersville, PA, and is a proud past member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. He is also a member of The William Morris Society (among others), and the author-compiler of the upcoming bibliography on The Mosher Books.

Sources for More Information

The following sources will provide more information on Mosher and The Mosher Press:

  • Vilain, Jean-François and Philip R. Bishop. Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book. (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Co., 1992). Excellent 112- page exhibition catalogue with 71 b&w photo-illustrations. $24 plus shipping from most books-on- books dealers, or by calling 717-733-1476, or contact by eMail at mosher@ptd.net.
  • Thompson, Susan Otis. American Book Design and William Morris. With a New Foreword by Jean- François Vilain. (The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1996). Hardcover-$49.94, paperback $34.95
  • Strouse, Norman. The Passionate Pirate. (North Hills, PA: Bird & Bull Press, 1964). The only single biography in book form, now an expensive private press book priced at $650-$850.
  • Hatch, Benton L. A Check List of the Publications of Thomas Bird Mosher of Portland Maine. (Amherst, MA: Printed at the Gehenna Press for the University of Mass. Press, 1966). Another rare press book, prized as a Gehenna Press item, is usually priced at around $275-$350.
  • Of course, there’s nothing better than to see the books for yourself. Major institutional collections are located at: The Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco; the Mudd Library at Yale, the Library at the University of South Florida, Bowdoin College Library, the Hayden Library at Arizona State University-Tempe, the University of Louisville Library, the Miller Library at Colby College, The Houghton Library, the Portland (ME) Public Library, and the Kalamazoo College Library, just to name a few.