A. Edward Newton – An Excerpt from ‘This Book Collecting Game’

Newton, A. Edward. “The Book Itself” in This Book Collecting Game. Boston: Little, Brown, 1928, pp. 119, 122-25. Excerpts were reprinted in The Mosher Books catalogue, 1929, pp. 3-4.

It is curious to remember that the two men who have so influenced the style of the modern book, William Morris and Thomas Mosher, began their work quite independently of each other, in the same year, 1890 [sic]. It is now almost forty years ago that I bought, immediately upon its appearance, the first Kelmscott Press book, The Story of the Glittering Plain. I bought it from E. D. North, who was then with Scribner’s, because it interested me rather than because I thought it beautiful. The book created a sensation at the time: it was hailed as a great achievement. Mosher’s first book, whatever it was [Modern Love] created no comment. He, so far as I know, made no pronouncement; he merely went to work, and with the limited means at his disposal–and they were extremely limited in Portland, Maine, in the early nineties–produced books which were beautiful in type and format, were easy to read and easy to hold; moreover, they had this great merit: they were published at a price which put them within reach of all. Mosher did not prate about art for the masses or the beauty of democracy, and then produce books which only rich men could buy; but by the sheer force of his good taste and good judgment he got the results he set out to secure. He was never a printer himself, but he had ideas and ideals, and he was able to impress them upon others; with the passage of time he came to command the best types, paper, and ink that could be had, and he used them like the artist that he was.

I have before me as I write two of the catalogues which, before the war, he used to issue annually. One is dated 1906: it is a slender catalogue of sixty-eight pages; the cover is of dark blue paper printed in an allover design in dark green, while in a small panel in the upper left-hand corner, in vermilion, is the title The Mosher Books, and the date. I have called it a catalogue: it is more–it is an anthology. Even more beautiful is the pamphlet issued four years later: it is now a booklet of eighty pages; the cover is old rose with the printing in two shades of the same color. Nothing could be more daintily simple than these brochures which were intended for gratuitous distribution. But I have only suggested their greatest, their most enduring charm. Never before or since, I believe, has a man made such a delicate appeal to the reader and the book-lover. With exquisite quotations in verse and in prose, from every source under the wide and starry sky, he called attention to the literary merit of his wares, saying just enough about type and size and binding to enable one to order by letter–for practically he sold only by mail.

Occasionally, not often,–not often enough,–someone went to Portland and asked where his shop or printery or office was, and practically no one knew. When he was at the height of his fame, known all over the world, someone went to Portland, registered at the hotel, and then asked where he could find T. B. Mosher. The clerk didn’t know, had never heard of him, but he would inquire; after a time he returned, saying nobody knew; if he had ever lived in Portland he must be dead. A prophet is not without honor, and so forth.

Mosher’s books have another merit which one looks for in vain elsewhere. I refer to their literary quality. I don’t think he ever printed a book merely because it would sell, although I have no doubt that many people bought his books because he printed them–and they never regretted doing so. His selective taste was as unerring as his knowledge of the practical side of his business. He made the best literature of all time and of all countries popular, if so be a book may be called popular which in a nation of a hundred millions sells in hundreds only. But mass production was not for him.

Simplicity–what may be called readability–he kept ever before him. Whether a Mosher book was of large format or small, bound this way or that, one could always tell it at a glance–or could until every printer and publisher in the country copied more or less his style. Morris has his disciples,–Rudge, Rogers, Nash, Updike, Goudy,–but no less a debt is owed Mosher by those who may be called commercial publishers, and it is these who disseminate the taste of the nation; indeed, it seems to me our printers owe as much to Mosher as to Morris. Mosher may have thought of himself as democratic; he would have laughed to have heard himself called an aristocrat of publishers; but he was an aristocrat in his mind and in his method. All of us who love books, inside and out, are and will ever be in debt to Thomas Bird Mosher. I feel no hesitation in speaking of him. I never saw him, and I had only one letter from him, and that was when, some ten years ago, I wrote in the Atlantic Monthly a few lines of appreciation of the work he was doing in the making of fine books. I am glad I did; I am glad I spoke while yet he was alive; after his death, to say what I thought would merely have been to join in the chorus.

Some of the best writing brains of this country are functioning in the art of advertising. A cigarette advertiser has said, “There is a little Turkish in all good cigarettes, but”–some cigarette or other “is all Turkish.” In like manner, I should say that there is a little Mosher in all well-printed books, but the best-printed books are all Mosher. Bruce Rogers remarked to a lecturer who had paid a tribute to Mosher in the Grolier Club one evening, “I would rather have done his work than mine.” It was generously said, but Bruce Rogers can afford to let others look after his fame: it is secure. But there is, I fear, some danger–because Mosher was a publisher and not a printer and because, as a publisher, he paid few or small royalties–that his real service to the book-lover will be forgotten.

Comparisons are always odious. There is glory enough for all. Both men are dead, but their work still lives after them; both in England and in this country we have not one supreme, but many excellent printers–and this is as it should be. It is absurd to suppose that if you want a finely printed book it must, necessarily, come from the press of so-and-so. There are many excellent printers… The lines of Tennyson occur to me: —

Most can raise the flowers now.
For all have got the seed.

And the seed was planted by William Morris in England and by Thomas Bird Mosher in this country.

Newton was an author and distinguished collector.