Book Decoration in America 1890 – 1910

The following is taken from the exhibition catalogue, Book Decoration in America 1890-1910 — A Guide to an Exhibition by Laurie W. Crichton. Revised by Wayne G. Hammond and Robert L. Volz. (Williamstown, MA: Chapin Library, Williams College, 1979), pp. 45-47.

  1. THE GEORGICS, by Virgil. Portland, Me.: Mosher, 1899. 2 vols. 15.5 x 9 cm. Vol. I shown: front cover pictorial design; title page and 93 text borders (I repeated design); 3 ornaments as divisional endings.
  2. “Old World Series.” Portland, Me.: Mosher, various dates. 18 x 10 cm. Three volumes shown: THE TALE OF CHLOE, by George Meredith (1899); AUCASSIN & NICOLETE, trans. Andrew Lang (1895), edition of 100 on Japan vellum; and THE PEARL, trans. Marian Mead (1908). Front cover designs (The Pearl signed “C”); 4 to 9 ornaments (some designs repeated) in each volume as half-title and divisional title decorations and as head- and tailpieces; 2 additional pictorial headpieces and a figured tail ornament in AUCASSIN & NICOLETE, signed with “PH” monogram.
  3. “Vest Pocket Series.” Portland, Me.: Mosher, various dates. 14.5 x 7.5 cm. Four volumes shown: LAUS VENERIS, by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1900); QUATTROCENTISTERIA, by Maurice Hewlett (1908); A LITTLE BOOK OF NATURE THOUGHTS, by Fiona Macleod (1908); and the RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, trans. Edward FitzGerald (1909). Front cover designs by Frederic W. Goudy; 9 to 13 ornaments (some designs repeated) in each volume as half-title and divisional title decorations and as head- and tailpieces.
  4. AN IDYL OF FIRST LOVE, by George Meredith. Portland, Me.: Mosher, 1906. 14.5 x 10 cm. Cover design; 2 headpieces, 2 tailpieces, and 4 initials (3 designs, 1 repeated).
  5. MIMES, by Marcel Schwob. Portland, Me.: Mosher, 1901 21 x 13 cm. Front cover, spine, and title page designs and lettering signed “C”; 24 initials (9 designs, 4 repeated).

The typical book issued by Thomas Bird Mosher (1852-1923) of Portland, Maine, 1 contains a few Renaissance-style headpieces coupled with other touches of ornamentation and decorative initials. These decorations serve as accents in the usually small volumes that otherwise feature clear printing with small type and generous margins. Occasionally a book was more fully embellished, such as the Georgics, with its deep green festoons on every page, but the decoration was always applied with restraint.

The greatest decorative variation and originality in the Mosher books is in their covers. Of the fourteen series issued, the most widely distributed (more than 100,000 copies) was the Old World Series (1895-1909), for which covers were designed by a number of different artists, most of them unidentified. These covers are not masterpieces; nevertheless, their almost limitless variety from title to title gives to each book an artistic mark of distinction. Most of the volumes bear on the front cover a two-and-one-half inch-square vignette of simple composition: for example, the symmetrical intertwining vine, adapted from Renaissance ornamentation, of The Talc of Chloe (Plate V), the asymmetrical decoration of Aucassin & Nicolete, and the flowing Art Nouveau vignette of The Pearl (Plate V). Mosher’s placement of a discreet ornament works well because of his concept of a book’s design as one of clean, timeless elegance with which almost any simple adornment would be appropriate.

In contrast, for the Vest Pocket Series (1899-1913), issued in simple grayish-blue wrappers, Mosher utilized variations upon a theme. Each volume in this series has on its front cover one of four different but similar red-orange intertwining vines, randomly printed within one of four different but similar rectilinear black borders (Plate V). The vines in these covers are the signed work of Frederic W. Goudy, then (1899-1900) a commercial artist and free-lance designer. The decorations exhibit the obvious influence of Morris and other English designers, from whose work Goudy drew through his avid reading of contemporary literature dealing with the decorative arts. 2 In later reprints and repeats the “G” signature was dropped from the designs. Whether Goudy also drew the borders is not clear.

Though the name “Mosher” rarely conjures up an image of Art Nouveau, covers for the Mosher books were occasionally decorated in this style, and none more completely than the cover of an Idyl of First Love Together with its eleven companion pieces in the Ideal Series of Little Masterpieces (1906-09), this cover features an abstract pattern formed by undulating gold lines with attached leaf-like forms, with part of the spaces between the lines filled with small circles, but with bulbous openings left bare, through which the rich green of the cover paper shows through. A look a second longer, however, reveals a different pattern, with the undecorated spaces as the principal design element and the gold lines and circles as an intricate, flat ground.

The front cover of Schwob’s Mimes (Plate VI) also features Art Nouveau decoration, in this case an asymmetrical design of stylized whole poppy plants which end in realistic purple blooms. Patterned wisps flit lightly across the cover and evoke the lines from the text of the fifth of these Symbolist pieces: “. . . if I have woven them garlands of violets and poured forth libations of wine and milk from my water-jars; if I have gathered poppies for them at the hour when the sun kisses the crest of my wall, mid swarms of gnats that float on the evening air….” A related Art Nouveau decoration on the title page incorporates the water-jars, while the poppy motif con-tinues onto the spine. Possibly, the artist for Mimes who signed himself “C” was Thomas Maitland Cleland (1880-1964): everything about the work of “C” is consistent with the young Cleland’s then unestablished style, including the elegant hand lettering of the cover and the title page. 3


  1. Thompson, pp. 190-97, and Blumenthal, pp. 41-43, both include Mosher in their surveys of American bookmaking. The fullest account of the Mosher publications is Benton L. Hatch, comp. and ed., Check List of the Publications of Thomas Bird Mosher . . . with a Biographical Essay by Ray Nash (Amherst (Mass.), 1966). The sanest appreciation of Mosher is Norman H. Strouse, The Passionate Pirate (North Hills, Pa., 1964).
  2. Frederic W. Goudy, A Half-Century of Typo Design and Typography 1895 1945 (New York, 1946). pp. 41, 45-46. Goudy’s discussion of his associations in the late nineties (pp. 30-51 et passim), especially his work with W. W. Denslow and Elbert Hubbard and both Goudy’s and Bruce Rogers’ associations with Mosher, suggests that further research and examination of design examples are needed.
  3. A review of Cleland’s early work shows a definite Kelmscott-Walter Crane influence with more than a dash of Goodhue’s Gothicizing, while his later work was greatly influenced by diverse Renaissance models. Cleland’s Art Nouveau bookplate for Laura Finley (reproduced in Bowdoin, p. 181), however, as well as his tailpiece for his own 1901 Cornhill Press edition of Housman’s Blind Love (illustration in Thompson, p. 166), demonstrates his ability to design in the more modern mode. Cleland signed much of his work with a “C,” drawn in a characteristic manner. The same mark appears on several later Old World Series covers of Art Nouveau design.