The Ideal Series of Little Masterpieces, 1906 – 1909

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.

Twelve titles were published, and two of them—de Queiroz’s Sweet Miracle and Our Lady’s Tumbler—were issued in a second edition, bringing the total volumes to fourteen.

The standard trim size for each volume was 140 mm x 95 mm. Each was issued, in unspecified print runs, on Van Gelder paper and on Japan vellum. The Van Gelder copies were bound in green wrappers with superimposed gold pattern, the Japan copies in tan Japan wrappers with a similar gold pattern.

The purpose of this series is not clear, since some of the books—and other works by some of their authors—also appeared in other series. It is quite possible, as noted earlier, that some series were created solely as a marketing ploy.

However, these slim volumes, “printed in old-style roman type, enclosed in rules, after an approved Chiswick format,” achieved Mosher’s intention to offer books “unsurpassed in the attention bestowed upon technical details.” Mosher uses rules most effectively to frame the text, giving a strong architectural feeling to each page in spite of the miniature format. But the series’ most arresting feature is the hypnotic cover decoration of the purest Art Nouveau inspiration. This decoration , consisting of an abstract pattern of “undulating gold lines with attached leaf-like forms, with part of the space between the lines filled with small circles, but with bulbous openings left bare, through which the rich green of the cover paper show s through” renders each book a jewel.1

  1. POEMS IN PROSE, Oscar Wilde. Printed for Thomas B. Mosher and Published by Him at XLV Exchange Street, Portland, Maine, MDCCCCVI (Fig. 45).
    54 pp., Ideal 2, Hatch 361. This copy is printed on Van Gelder paper. Watercolor decorations by Clara Chipman Newton.

    At a time when many publishers were reluctant to publish Oscar Wilde, Mosher did not hesitate to do so. Beginning in 1903, he issued twenty different books by Wilde. In the Preface to Poems in Prose, he expressed the hope that “after a little time is passed over, the undying spirit of beauty will once again be acknowledged as your [Wilde’s] unalienable possession.”

    The practice among private presses of hand-illuminating title pages and initials was almost exclusively an American development (the Essex press is the best-known exception in England). The additional incentive was to attract book collectors. The Alwil, Hillside, Philosopher, and Roycroft presses, Ransom at his Handcraft Shop, and The Craftsman Guild are among those that extensively used illumination. Embellishing books was common practice in the nineteenth century, and the Arts and Crafts movement gave new life to this medieval art form. Along with china painting and embroidery, this pursuit was one in which women could exercise their artistic talents at home. In this book, the Arts and Crafts movement and the revival of printing are united. The artist is Clara Chipman Newton {1848-1936), who was both secretary and decorator at the Rookwood Pottery, America’s premier art pottery makers. It is perhaps gilding the lily to embellish a volume from the Ideal Series, but if it has to be done, it is fitting that the decorator be a member of the Arts and Crafts movement.

  2. OUR LADY’S TUMBLER A TWELFTH CENTURY LEGEND translated by Philip H. Wicksteed. Printed for Thomas B. Mosher and published by Him at XLV Exchange Street, Portland, Maine, MDCCCCVI.
    41 pp., Ideal 5, Hatch 364. Printed on Japan vellum.

    Translated from the medieval French, this story tells of a humble tumbler who entered a convent and prayed to the Virgin Mary as best he could by leaping and tumbling at prayer time. The Virgin and her angels rewarded the man by appearing and witnessing his unassuming act of faith. The tale was a popular one that Mosher reprinted seven times: four editions in the Miscellaneous Series, two in the Ideal Series, and one privately printed for Edward A. Woods. The popularity of this title is further underscored by a Morrisian version published in 1898 by Copeland and Day that went through three additional editions under the Small, Maynard imprint.

  1. Crighton, op. cit., p. 46.