The Passionate Pirate

Strouse, Norman H. The Passionate Pirate. North Hills, PA: Bird & Bull Press, 1964, 1972, pp. 9-13. The following comments on Mosher are from the Introductory Note in this, the only biography of Thomas Bird Mosher ever published in book form:

Assuming that all things are relative, Keats could not have been more excited by his first exposure to Chapman’s Homer than I with my first glimpse of a Mosher book, one of the slender little volumes from his Old World Series, bound in Japan vellum, hand set and printed on Van Gelder hand made paper, carrying the imprint of Thomas Bird Mosher, of Portland, Maine.

As was my custom during my early days on the Seattle Post-lntelligencer, I walked home one evening along Olive Way, which led to Capitol Hill, where I lived in a small room in a private home. Among the one-storied shops along the route was a second hand bookstore, the proprietor of which was an old Norwegian who had a scanty stock but whose talk about books had charmed me off my homeward schedule on more than one occasion.

On this particular evening we were debating the relative importance of format and content in a good book, and he advanced the proposition that one could acquire a liberal education solely through the reading of books designed and produced by the modern fine presses. When I evidenced some skepticism, he asked whether I had ever seen a Mosher book. I had not, so he brought several from his back room, together with one of the old Mosher catalogues. Before I left I was poorer by a few coins, but richer through this introduction to one of the most remarkable printer-publishers in the private press movement on either side of the Atlantic.

This introduction to Mosher opened for me a new world of literature, and led me into many avenues of reading which I might otherwise have missed. It also gave root to my interest in the art and history of the book which has provided countless hours of pleasure and education both as a bibliophile and student of English literature. Had it not been for the Mosher books which accumulated one by one, or sometimes in small clusters, on my library shelves, I probably would not have become acquainted with the writings of many authors whom one must read as a young man if ever they are to make their point, and become a part of one’s life. Who ever reads William Blake, Yeats, Edward FitzGerald, Housman, Andrew Lang, William Morris, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Swinburne, Keats, Rossetti and Wilde, George Gissing or Maurice Hewlett in the rush of a business or professional career?

Ten years of collecting brought more than one hundred and fifty Mosher books to my shelves. My study of them was assisted by a rewarding correspondence with Flora Lamb, long-time secretary to Thomas Bird Mosher, who had carried on the business of the firm for many years following his death in 1923. I gleaned a little information here and there from book dealers, who seemed always to have a few Mosher books around, spoke well of them, but who knew very little about the Press or its background. In 1937 I was asked by a member of the Roxburghe Club of San Francisco if I would prepare a talk on the subject of Mosher for one of their monthly dinner meetings upstairs at old Pierre’s Restaurant on Pine Street. I had the temerity to accept.

Before this relaxed, informal group, well supplied with wine and food, I presented a paper, as well as an exhibit of representative Mosher books. My reward was a responsive audience, and membership by acclamation. Several booksellers present expressed surprise at the breadth and quality of Mosher’s production during the 32 years history of the press, and urged that the paper be published. As I was continuing to accumulate information on Mosher, I was reluctant to proceed with any plans for publication. Soon the war in Europe and my active participation in the Willkie Volunteers distracted my attention. In 1942 I sold my library and entered the service.

When I returned to civilian life, I immediately resumed my old sins and started collecting books again, this time somewhat compulsively, and with Mosher high on my ]list of desiderata. It was slow work, as Mosher books seem to be about the rarest inexpensive books one can look for. However, there must be a patron saint for collectors. In 1948 Mosher’s own library came to auction, and I was able to replace many of my pre-war Mosher items with his own personal copies. In 1960, I was asked to make a talk on books before the members of The Rowfant Club of Cleveland, and accepted because I felt it was time to talk about Mosher again. I revised my Roxburghe Club talk to include a considerable amount of new material which had accumulated. The reaction was the same as in 1937. Tremendous interest, both in the talk and the exhibit, and many nostalgic recollections about Mosher among the older members. And again the urge to publish. But as additional information was still coming to hand, I felt that the book could wait for a while yet.

Late in 1962 I was invited by The Society of Printers In Boston to make a talk on book collecting and fine printing and accepted an engagement for February 6, 1963. With the feeling that I might be carrying bibliographical coals to Newcastle in talking about Mosher to a group of printers in Mosher’s back yard, I nevertheless decided this would be a good test of interest. With a more than respectable attendance, and a delightful scattering of wives in the audience, I was stimulated again by the unusual interest displayed in the talk and the exhibit, with discussion of Mosher continuing at a gracious postprandial gathering at Rollo Silver’s book-lined home on Beacon Hill.

Once more there were suggestions that the talk be converted into print for wider availability, with one specific proposal for publication. I confess of some feeling of jealousy about the Mosher material which I had assembled across so many years. I wanted the circumstances for its publication to be right, both as to time and press. As a result of a modest collaboration in a remarkable book, Five On Paper, produced by Henry Morris of the Bird & Bull Press of North Hills, Pennsylvania, I became convinced that the circumstances were favorable-in fact, almost compelling. Five On Paper came completely from the hand of Henry Morris, even the 1800 sheets of hand made paper having been produced single-handedly during the weekends of the summer of 1962 in his basement. He designed the book, hand set the type, printed the book by hand on dampened paper, collated, sewed and hand bound it in full leather. Librarians and private collectors fortunate enough to secure copies were unanimous in their expressions of surprise and commendation. It won generous reviews, including one from far-off England, where James Moran in his publication The Black Art summed up: “The book is therefore a major achievement for a private press apart from the fact that Mr. Morris made all the paper himself.” Five On Paper, a surprise hit, was almost immediately out of print, and now is a hard-to-come-by and inexpensive rare book. Basic to the delight one experiences in handling Mosher books is the exquisite hand made paper on which he exercised his rare talent for book making. Although Mosher drew on sympathetic craftsmen to print his books, every volume spoke eloquently of a personal dedication to the concept of a private press. Mosher books were a simple extension of the personality of Thomas Bird Mosher and his compulsive delight in the spiritual treasures of literature. The products of Mosher’s artistry were scattered across the four corners of the English reading world during his lifetime. But he has also reached across the decades since his death to excite the interest of many others, including a dedicated hand craftsman of natural skills in Henry Morris.

In discussing Mosher with this delightfully unassuming young printer in my library last fall, his spontaneous enthusiasm made it inevitable that any first book about the enraptured book maker from Portland, Maine, should come from his hands. I knew that in his hands Mr. Mosher would be well dealt with.

N. H. S.
New York City February 1, 1964.