Borrowing from the Pirate

Note: The following catalogue list, with minor alterations, is taken from Vilain and Bishop’s Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book (Philadelphia: F. A Davis, 1992), pp. 11-54, with the kind permission of the publisher. Cross references to the illustrations which appear in the book have been eliminated.

That Mosher succeeded in his attempt to show that beautiful books could be done cheaply can be seen in his influence on commercial publishers of the period and in the prevalence of the Aesthetic style in their books.

As previously mentioned, the printing revival owes much to Morris’s philosophy of printing, but less to the actual output of his Kelmscott Press. The magnificent Kelmscott books were produced without regard to cost and beyond the reach of any but the wealthiest readers—a “problem” common to most private presses of the period. The Kelmscott pages, densely set in a dark, Janson-inspired typeface, were more easily looked at than read. The idea that reading could be an aesthetic as well as an intellectual pleasure was powerful, however, and Mosher not only adopted it wholeheartedly but with the added goal of making this pleasure inexpensive as well, taking the airy elegance of the Renaissance books as his model.

Mosher’s books sold mostly through the mail, but were also available from shops like Brentano’s in New York and Paul Elder in San Francisco.1 Their wide distribution meant that they reached not just the public but designers and publishers as well. These saw that, indeed, “exquisite literary form, choice typography and inexpensiveness need not lie far apart.”

Gradually books produced by turn-of-the-century commercial and literary publishers began to reflect this indebtedness. The early creations of D. B. Updike and Bruce Rogers, both of whom worked for Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside Press in the 1890s, were clearly influenced by the Kelmscott books. These designers soon adopted a more restrained use of decorations and an airier page make-up. Rogers, in a letter to Mosher, acknowledged Mosher’s influence on his style.

If many artists of the book were influenced by Mosher, a few publishers paid the “pirate” the ultimate tribute, blithely pirating him. Some adopted the binding style and trim size so characteristic of the Mosher books. Still others produced near facsimiles.

  1. BOOK TITLES FROM SHAKESPERE [sic], Volney Streamer. New York, The Schlueter Printing Company, 1911.
    175 mm x 112 mm, 79 pp. Second edition, privately printed for the author in an edition of 800 copies on Holland paper. A first edition was printed in 1901 in an edition of 1000 copies on handmade paper and 25 copies on Japan vellum.

    The trim size, gray boards, and the spine and cover labels printed in red and white with geometric rules are identical to those of Mosher’s Lyric Garland Series. The page design, however, is strongly reminiscent of that used by Hahlo and Hellman in their Laurentian Press’s In a Balcony (1902), with which Schlueter might have been familiar. The book is a listing of book titles that are quotations from Shakespeare, arranged alphabetically by author.

  2. ESSAYS IN PASSING, Stuart Olivier. Portland, Maine, Smith and Sale, 1913.
    156 mm x 119 mm.Vol.1, 77pp.; Vol. 11, 81 pp.; Vol. III, 79 pp. Privately printed for the author; copy 100 of an unspecified print run.

    The gray boards and the white ribbed spine are reminiscent of the bound volumes of The Bibelot. This style of binding was also used in the early productions of the Roycrofters. The page design is a scaled-down version of the one used by Mosher in the Quarto Series. These similarities are not too surprising, since Smith and Sale, Mosher’s upstairs neighbors on Exchange Street, also printed The Bibelot and many of the Mosher Books.

    These sentimental essays were printed for the “author’s dear friends” to whom “he so loves to be near,” as he states in an inscription on the front free end page.

  3. LES TROPHÉES, José-Maria de Heredia, translated by Henry Johnson. Brunswick, Maine, I.W. Chandler & Sons, 1910.
    181 mm x 125 mm, 156 pp.

    Here again the binding includes blue boards and white ribbed spine. The interior design could easily be mistaken for that of any of Mosher’s Quartos: quiet typography and no ornament save a two-line initial at the beginning of each poem. This is one of the rare attempts to introduce Heredia to the American public. Another, much more successful attempt was The Trophies, published in 1900 by Small, Maynard of Boston, with designs by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and illuminations by Ruth Adams Turner.

  4. SPICEWOOD, Lizette Woodworth Reese. Baltimore, The Norman, Remington Co., 1922.
    175 mm x 119mm,64pp.

    Mosher had published five volumes of poetry by Reese, a native of Baltimore, when for reasons still unclear she decided to have a local company reissue some of these poems. In a letter to Reese, Mosher says that he doesn’t object to another company publishing works of hers that had appeared under his imprint, in spite of the potential damage to his sales of her books; neither does he mind that The Norman, Remington Company imitates the Mosher style. He does, however, express sly surprise at the $1.50 charged by the new publisher, considering the inferior quality of the paper!2

    This volume, with its gray boards and white labels, fleuron decorations, and slide case, could be mistaken for one of the Lyric Garland Series. The interior design is also strikingly identical to that of the Lyric Garland Series.

  5. SONNETS TO A WIFE, Ernest McGaffey. St. Louis, The Mirror Press, [William Marion Reedy], MCMI.
    180 mm x 100 mm, 70 pp. One of an unspecified number printed on Van Gelder paper and bound in flexible vellum with turned edges.

    Reedy—author and famed editor/publisher of the St. Louis Mirror—was a close friend of Mosher’s. He wrote introductions to four Mosher books, edited the 1905 Kasîdah, and wrote “The Ending of The Bibelot” (See Chapter Seven, “The Bibelot.”) Two of the introductions were for volumes in the Old World Series (Liber Amoris and Gaston de Latour). Reedy must have enjoyed the format of these volumes, since the format of the present title is identical, down to the cover design and placement of the type on the spine. Reedy pays additional homage to his friend by printing the text in italics, as were the volumes in the Bibelot Series. (See entries 3 and 4.)

  6. WOVEN IN THE TAPESTRY, Emily Post. New York, Moffat, Yard and Company, MCMVIII.
    175 mm x 100 mm, 138 pp. One of an unspecified number of copies printed on Van Gelder paper and bound in flexible Japan vellum.

    This volume of tales of fantasy, written by a famous turn-of-the-century expert on manners, clearly shows Mosher’s influence. Although the plain cover, printed in olive green, is not Mosherian, the interior design is an unabashed if unsuccessful attempt to duplicate that of the Old World Series. The typeface on the title page, however, lacks Mosher’s vigorous elegance, and the red ink is too glaring.

    Moffat, Yard published other books in the Aesthetic style, among which The Baglioni has a title page designed by Thomas Maitland Cleland (see also entry 17).

  1. Huntress, op. cit., p. I 44.
  2. Letter dated May 6, 1921, Houghton Collection (bMS AM 1096 1073).