Mosher Books in Series

The following is adapted, with the publisher’s permission, from Vilain and Bishop’s chapter entitled “Mosher’s Concept of Series” found in Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1991, pp. 8-10). Some updating changes to the data have been made.

For information on each of the series, see the discussions from Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book. For samples of the various books in each series, click here.

The Mosher Series

The idea of producing books and grouping them around a common theme was not a new idea in the 19th century. William Pickering had his “Diamond Classics” and “The Aldine Poets.” George Bell and Sons continued in this vein and also produced an Aldine poets series. By the time Mosher began publishing in 1891, he was already familiar with how some publishers grouped their wares into various series. Some of Mosher’s earliest reading and collecting included books published in London by Henry Bohn, whose imprints were grouped into series like “Bohn’s British Classics,” “Bohn’s Ecclesiastical Library,” “Bohn’s Illustrated Library,” and at least ten others. He was also familiar with the German Tauchnitz editions organized into various series like “La France Classique,” and the “Collection of British Authors.” Macmillan had its “Golden Treasury Series,” Humphrey’s his “Quarto Series,” John Lane had the “Keynotes Series” and Elkin Matthews his “Shilling Garland Series” and “The Vigo Cabinet Series,” just to name a few. So for Mosher, selling books by creating several series seemed both the natural and expedient thing to do.

Between 1891 and 1923 Mosher published 730 books (including sixty-one private printings and commissions) plus thirty-one catalogues, and 240 issues (plus two indexes) of his magazine, The Bibelot. This astonishing number is made even more impressive by the care he devoted to each title and by the beauty of the books. Over these same years he developed fourteen series in all.

In his 1911 catalogue, Mosher stated that from the beginning he meant to publish books with an intellectual and spiritual kinship in a consistent format that would be aesthetically pleasing and intellectually rewarding. This is the overt explanation for the existence of the fourteen series that comprise the Mosher Books, and many of these are indeed faithful to that concept. There are, however, many exceptions. Some titles appear in more than one series; the first volumes of some series appear initially as part of another; and “intellectual and spiritual kinship” seems to be lacking in the volumes of some series. These exceptions point to a more covert, financial goal.1 Although the Mosher Books were inexpensive, the clientele was not large and had to be motivated to buy more volumes. Mosher understood that people who like books tend to like their sets complete, and by packaging his publications in series, as well as making some volumes available as sets, he catered to this passion. Mosher must have been aware of the collector’s penchant to own various printings of a favorite work or author, a need he or she could satisfy by purchasing that book in more than one series. It is also likely that Mosher, the book lover who delighted in beautiful books, took great pleasure in creating different designs for favorite works. All of which would explain, for instance, the twenty-six editions (including those privately printed), in four different series, of the Rubáiyát, that beloved icon of the 1890s, of which he too was so fond.

Much has been made of the sameness (some have even said monotony) of the “little” Mosher books.2 Indeed, Mosher published several little sixteenmo (16mo) books not larger than an average hand; but he also issued many larger volumes, even large quartos.3

Many of the books in each series are similar in appearance, yet the design of each series is strikingly different and of great appeal to book collectors. The covers, especially, are sumptuously varied. Yet, the critics are right up to a point. There is a look to the these volumes that stamps them all “Mosher Books,” united by their publisher’s belief that “nothing is worth printing that is not worth printing well.”

The appearance, size, and design were the same for all books in a series, with the exception of two-the Reprints of Privately Printed Books Series and the Miscellaneous Series. Interior variations were usually minor, consisting of a slightly different headband or tailpiece. Monotony was offset by the variety of cover designs, as in the Old World Series, for each volume of which Mosher commissioned an artist to create a different cover design.

Another incentive for book collectors was the variety of materials on which the books were printed. Mosher, as did Morris, used only the finest handmade laid papers, mostly Van Gelder. Unlike Morris, he was fond of Japan vellum, a stiff, extremely smooth, long-fibered paper on which he usually printed a limited number of additional copies. (This was a favorite practice of both commercial publishers and private presses, all aware of the appeal of limited editions.) In addition, Mosher also offered a few copies, no more than ten, printed on real animal vellum. It is a little known fact that Thomas Bird Mosher produced more book titles printed on velum than any other printer or publisher in America (46 titles / 47 volumes).

Mosher’s greatest achievement are the volumes in the Reprint of Privately Printed Books and the Miscellaneous Series. He was keenly aware of this and in his catalogue of 1911 offered these two series as specimens of his finest work.4

The size of the volumes range from sixteenmo, as in From the Upanishads (150 mm x 85 mm), to large quarto, as in Ten Spiritual Designs (335 mm x 255 mm).

In these books Mosher gives full range to his talent as a designer, nourished by his life-long love of great literature beautifully printed. He nicely expressed his sense of priorities when he wrote that “whenever greater typographical excellence is achieved by following the original edition, it will be faithfully reproduced.”5 At the same time he freely admitted that when necessary (and it often was necessary) he could and did “improve upon the format of the original edition”6 or create a new format.

As with the volumes from the other series, it is the covers, in addition to the contents and the typography, that provide the greatest excitement for the reader and the book collector.

Part of Mosher’s genius lies in his ability to appropriate elements from various sources and to blend them into a harmonious whole. Although not a recognized part of the mainstream of the printing revival or of the private press movement, Mosher followed closely and borrowed from developments in both. He owned books printed by the major presses of the day: Ashendene, Kelmscott, Vale, Daniel, Doves, Eragny, Roycroft, Elston, Alderbrink, Village; and by the literary publishers: Elkin Mathews and John Lane’s the Bodley Head, Way and Williams, Copeland and Day, and R. H. Russell. Mosher also subscribed to The Bookman, The Hobby Horse, and Jugend. He also corresponded with graphic artists, publishers, and printers, including Marion Louise Peabody, Louis Rhead, Frederic Goudy, Ingalls Kimball, Bruce Rogers, Edward M. Moore, Isamu Noguchi [sic, should read Yone Noguchi], Sarah Prideaux, Helen van Vechten Bruneau, and Mitchell Kennerley.

Beyond their physical appearance, Mosher’s books are also remarkable for their scholarly value. Each volume had a preface by Mosher in which he placed the book in its historical and intellectual context. Many included an introduction (sometimes commissioned by Mosher) by an expert on the author. When variant editions of a work existed, Mosher included all text variations in the volume and provided a bibliography as well.

The Mosher Books grew slowly at first, with fifteen books published in four series through 1895. By the end of 1896, however, Mosher had published another fifteen titles, and the pace did not abate until his death.

The fourteen different series (see chronologically arranged graph) were advertised in various promotional pieces such as advertising flyers, seasonal lists, in The Bibelot, and in advertisements which appeared in numerous magazines; however, the most important source of information for the various series of Mosher’s books was his annual catalogues. Here Mosher would list a series name like the Old Word Series and then list the titles under that series in chronological order of their first appearance. The number assigned to each title became the number within the series, for example, Rossetti’s translation of The New Life of Dante was the third Old World Series book to be produced. Both the Hatch Check List, and the new bibliography of Mosher’s books, include the ordinal number within a series assigned to the book in Mosher’s catalogues.

  1. Mosher seems to have planned yet another series that never came to fruition. In his “Daily Reminder for 1906,” Mosher wrote on January 15: “Breviary Series 1) Parables 2) Ecclesiastes 3) Circum Praecordia.” Mosher had recently published The Sayings of Our Lord Jesus Christ (the Parables) as volume 31 of the Miscellaneous Series, and later published the other two books in the same series. He might have been influenced by the Breviary Series published by his friend and author, Nathan Haskell Dole, and decided against yet another piracy.
  2. Thompson, Susan Otis, American Book Design and William Morris, New York, R. R. Bowker, 1977, pp. 190-193.
  3. Mosher’s definition of book sizes is used throughout Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book.
  4. Thomas Bird Mosher, The Mosher Books, 1911, p. 29.
  5. Mosher’s Introductory Comments for the Reprint of Privately Printed Books Series: A List of Books in Belles Lettres, 1899, p. 46.
  6. Ibid.