A Collection Within a Collection

Over the course of my collecting career, at least as far as the Mosher Press is concerned–I once bought only the collected works of British and European philosophers published by others–I’ve gotten to see that as the collection grew it naturally seemed to fall into numerous sub-categories or sub-collections. When one starts out in this book collecting game, these sub-collections are not necessarily foreseen or apparent–but rather they just seem to evolve. This process was further hastened and expedited due to the fact that I brought in several large Mosher collections which greatly furthered my own collection. First there was the William Hill Collection (Cross Hills Books) out of Maine; then the Gertrude Traubel Collection (daughter of Horace Traubel) of Philadelphia; the Frank Mara Collection of Forest Hills, NY; the Dane Yorke Collection of manuscripts out of Portland, Maine; the Francis O’Brien Collection of edited Mosher books and manuscripts kept at his Hiram Farm in Maine; the Donald Dede Collection from New Hampshire; the crème de la crème of another privately held collection in Philadelphia; and most recently a major portion of the choice material from the Fred Board Collection which he started in 1952 or perhaps even earlier in Connecticut. As time went along I found the material moving far beyond assembling a pristine collection of just the titles from the Mosher Press.

The collection was beginning to break down into a number of different areas: (1) there were the books from Mosher’s personal library including books he used as the source texts for his own publications, (2) the whole area of manuscripts including letters to, from, or about Mosher in addition to entire unpublished books written by Mosher, (3) the Mosher books placed in fine bindings by bookbinders around the world, (4) all kinds of references relating to Mosher and his publishing program, (5) paraphernalia related to Mosher including all sorts of press ephemera, (6) correspondence with other collectors and research into the Mosher Press which, of course, resulted in the new bibliography and which continues to grow, (7) inscribed and association copies of the Mosher Books, (8) a collection of Mosher-look-alike books, and lastly, (9) the different states of many of the Mosher Press publications including unique volumes. It’s this last “collection” to which we’ll take a closer look because it launched yet another sub-collection–so I guess it wasn‘t the last after all–: (10) Mosher books printed on real vellum.

There are certain titles in the collection which now have been collected in every conceivable state. In the last issue of Endpapers (“When a List begins to Dwindle–Memento Mori“) I elaborated on one such collection surrounding The Memories of President Lincoln which included the printer’s mock-up dummy, the Italian paper version with two states of the cover, the Japan vellum copy, and the pure vellum copy. I also discussed the same sort of wide array of variant states when I wrote that little piece entitled “The Mosher Mimes the Merrier” back in the March 2004 issue of Endpapers. In each instance, one of the key commonalities is that these “every state” collections involve books that are printed on real vellum.

Printing on the real animal vellum page has always fascinated book collectors. Of course it harkens back to medieval times and earlier when manuscript books were written by scribes or monks on real vellum. The finest libraries were composed of vellum books of hours, classical books and treatises hand-written on vellum, and all sorts of religious texts including the Bible on vellum. With the advent of printing, cheaper paper copies were produced, but there were often a few copies printed on vellum. The British Museum maintains a list of all those books, and an American list was started by Dechard Turner of the Bridwell Library which still maintains the list. Private presses were particularly keen on producing a few vellum copies for gift and presentation purposes. The Kelmscott Press, Eragny Press, Essex House Press, Doves Press, and many others maintained the practice of printing a very few select and highly distinctive copies on vellum. Mosher was no exception in that he produced forty-seven titles on what was commonly called “pure” vellum, and like his predecessors, these copies went to only a select few of his very best customers bypassing Mosher’s book catalogues, if for no other reason than their prohibitive cost. (For more details see the detailed footnote below.) *

There were several collectors Mosher focused upon for copies of the Mosher Books printed on real vellum. He had his own collection of a copy of each title, save one, which he set aside for himself. On top of the list was Henry William Poor whose collection of fine bindings, illuminated manuscripts, first editions and press books was first rate. His family brokerage firm and his own financial career provided the necessary funds, but all came crumbling down in 1908 when the financial structure of his company collapsed and forced the liquidation of his assets. Included in his library, liquidated by the Anderson Auction Company, were 46 Mosher books printed on vellum.

Another prominent collector, John Quinn, was an amazingly wealthy tax attorney who made it a point of championing the efforts of many an artist and author in England. Quinn defended James Joyce’s Ulysses against the censors, and was one of the chief backers of the 1913 Armory show, a watershed exhibition of modern art. In Ireland he befriended painters and authors, supported their creative efforts and often acquired their manuscripts, books and art in exchange for his help. Mosher was one of Quinn’s many correspondents, and over the years managed to sell him 28 of the Mosher books printed on vellum, all of which went to auction in 1923 when Quinn decided his New York apartment was too full of books, letters, manuscripts and paintings.

Another steady recipient of the vellum books was the mysterious heiress of part of the Charles T. Yerkes’ (Chicago financier and traction magnate) fortune, Emilié B. Grigsby. Mosher assembled a whole collection of his books for the heiress who lived on Park Avenue in New York. Private press books and fine bindings were some of her favorites, and Mosher was quick to capitalize on her interests; however, in 1912 she sold all her art and literary collections, including the 22 vellum Mosher books, and moved overseas where she continued her life hosting a wide circle of fashionable friends in Edwardian England.

Of more recent vintage, Norman H. Strouse, president of the world’s largest advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, assembled numerous collections in different areas including the private presses, but always kept a special place in his heart for the books of Thomas Bird Mosher. It was Strouse who would write the only published biography of Mosher entitled, The Passionate Pirate. Strouse would gather together 31 of the Mosher books printed on vellum over his lifetime (including a number of duplicates), a number of which were also in fine full leather, highly decorated bindings. I corresponded with Norman Strouse over the last three years of his life, and together we shared the passion for collecting Mosher.

There have been others who sought out the Mosher books on vellum. The British Shakespearean actor, Edward Smith Willard, assembled at least a dozen or so, but I haven’t been able to acquire the second sale catalogue of his collection so I am not positive of the actual number. Another collection, that assembled by William F. Gable of the Gable Department Store in Altoona, PA also had in it some of the Mosher books on vellum, but I have only examined five of the seven catalogues recording the sale of his collection. From what I’ve seen it appears he only managed to acquire some of the high spot vellums of the Mosher books. The only other large collection, presently in private hands, has managed to get seven of the Mosher books on vellum.

All this leads to the direction of my own collection in which I have thus far managed to assemble 27 of the Mosher books printed on vellum, just four shy of Norman Strouse’s achievement! I have several which Norman never had in his collection, and at this juncture I wish I hadn’t sold off several duplicates over the years, otherwise I’d already be surpassing the great Strouse collection in this regard. However, I’ve changed in my attitude toward this sub-collection, based in part upon my deliberations on a vellum Mosher book recently offered me.

Recently has it become apparent to me that to collect the largest number of vellum Mosher books ever assembled from 1925 to the present isn’t much of a consoling feat at all. To surpass Strouse would mean only something to me, but not especially much to others or even to the overall strength of the Mosher collection itself. All of this was driven home when I recently had to consider the purchase of what, in my mind at least, is a sub-standard copy of a vellum Quarto Series book (I’ve been spoiled by having so many pristine copies). I questioned whether the numbers game was worth pursuing at all cost, including a rather hefty price for the book and accepting a copy which fell below my own carefully honed standards, principles and guidelines I’ve developed over the years. The two-fold bottom line became whether or not the book gave me pleasure every time I’d look at it, and was it worth putting myself in greater debt just so that I could boast that nobody within recent history has been able to supercede my collection’s holdings in the vellum department. My deliberations are herein greatly simplified, and beyond the two above critical questions, I had to also weigh a number of factors like the condition of like material in the collection, the emotional import of either accepting or rejecting the book, and whether or not the collection’s aims would be furthered by the purchase of the book. When all was said and done, I decided the collection already had several fine examples in the Quarto Series, and to have all the Quarto Series printed on vellum was not particularly significant. But most importantly, I released myself from the drive to win the numbers game.

This isn’t an easy feat to perform when the collector’s mentality or driving spirit develops into an almost maniacal and relentless effort which fellow collectors know all about as being bitten by the bibliophilic disease: bibliomania. Bibliomania is an irrationally based mental disease within which the afflicted often employ rational means for justification. This is one of the few times I’ve gotten hold of the reigns and slowed the horses down enough to carefully consider the options. Additionally, I called a fellow collector and bounced the alternatives off him. The final resolution was to return the book. So now I’m of the opinion that if over the next few years–knock on wood, Memento Mori and all that–I happen to acquire more Mosher vellum books so as to top the 31 ceiling, so be it, but if not, I’m not going to really care. I’m pleased to have the vellum examples which I have from The Garden Library; the Henry William Poor, John Quinn and Cortlandt Field Bishop collections; several with Edward S. Willard’s ownership signature; a number neatly and dramatically enclosed within some of the finest exhibition bindings; presentation copies; some in folded sheets; and one other. Remember that one exception in Thomas Bird Mosher’s own collection? He had an example of all of the vellum books he published save one. Only one copy of Cicero’s De Amicitia was printed on Roman vellum, and that went to Edward A. Woods of Sewickley, PA who commissioned the book. That book now resides on the shelves of the Mosher Collection here at the Bishopric of Lancaster County at Acorn Cottage. It’s somewhat comforting to know that not even Henry William Poor, or even Mosher himself, could have assembled a complete collection of the vellum books without owning that unique copy.

* Sometimes referred to as “Roman vellum” (imported from Rome, Italy), English “classic vellum” (calf skin) or its American equivalent, vellum is the untanned, de-greased and specially treated skin of a calf, kid, or lamb, at times procured from an unborn or still-born animal. The skin is stretched and polished with alum and smoothed with pumice. Throughout the centuries it has been the practice of some printers and publishers to produce a few copies of a book on vellum, especially if the book is of importance, typographically pleasing, or for special presentation. It should be noted that vellum is costly and not the easiest printing medium, but it usually accepts a printer’s ink better than most papers do. A thicker gauge vellum was often used for bookbinding. The skin remains unsplit and many times the skin’s pores and vein marks can be seen on the surface.

Mosher had forty-seven of his books printed on pure vellum, usually from four to ten copies each. With one exception, these copies were not advertised in his catalogues and were reserved for particularly wealthy clients such as William Henry Poor of New York City. The sale price of these volumes was not advertised, but prices discovered on just a few give us some idea. Accompanying a November 19, 1901 letter from William Henry Poor to Mosher (Houghton Library), a note lists several vellum books and the price paid by Poor. Each of the Quarto Series volumes cost $150; the copy of Intentions, $75; the smaller Lyric Garland Series books went for $15 each; and Father Damien for $25. Besides the Quarto Series, one of the most expensive vellum productions known is the 1905 The Kasîdah which is listed at $100. The only pure vellum book Mosher ever publicly listed was in his 1902 catalogue (p. 36), the facsimile edition of The Rubáiyát tersely described as: 10 COPIES ON PURE VELLUM (ALL SUBSCRIBED)…

After 1913 Mosher discontinued the practice of printing a few copies of his books on vellum. The price of vellum had become prohibitive, its availability lessened (especially during the war years), and the pool of primary customers for this material was diminishing. Mosher’s publishing program was also beginning to slow down. Nevertheless, it is still a remarkable achievement that forty-seven of his books, from 1898-1913, were printed on vellum. Few other American publishers or printers even approached this record. The Grolier Club, a bastion for the well-to-do collector in America, only published 31 titles on vellum between 1884-1923 (see The Grolier Club, 1884-1984. Its Library, Exhibitions, and Publications. NY: The Grolier Club, 1984), and most of these were 2-3 copies per title. Mosher’s chief rivals in vellum printing were the British private presses of Kelmscott, Ashendene, Doves, and Essex House. –Thomas Bird Mosher, Pirate Prince of Publishers, p. 65.


©Philip R. Bishop
25 July 2007


This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 2007 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.