The Lengthened Shadow

Strouse, Norman H. The Lengthened Shadow… An Address By Norman H. Strouse at an Opening of an Exhibition of Modern Fine Printing at the Grolier Club April 19, 1960. New York: Philip C. Duschnes, 1960, pp. 15-18. As Strouse mentioned in his opening remarks, the majority of the books presented in this exhibit were of a sort, “edging in spirit toward the amateur, and in professionalism somewhat toward the commercial. We might say that these are the presses representing that labor of love that also make a living. If they are not ‘private,’ they are at least very personal enterprises… The presses which seem to capture the special fancy of most discriminating collectors of fine printing are those which are as Emerson defined an institution, ‘the lengthened shadow of one man.'” Strouse devoted several pages to Mosher, and Mosher books were exhibited along with fifty-five other categories of presses, club publications, and individual printers and designers totaling 117 entries. Three Mosher books were selected: A.E.’s Homeward Songs by the Way (1895) with the Bruce Roger’s designs, Rossetti’s Hand and Soul (1898), and Whitman’s Memories of President Lincoln (1912), all listed on p.36 of the book. Here are Strouse’s comments:

Although I would seem to give precedence to Updike, the Prayer Book is one of the few items of his in my collection. The Huntington Library may properly state that “The output of his Merrymount Press during the last half century has been the strongest continuous influence for the improvement of printing in the United States.” But we must make our friends, one by one, and there are many whom we respect with whom we have not established bonds of intimacy which touch our emotions. I find myself in this position with Updike, but perhaps some day I will find my way past his formidable professionalism.

SUCH IS NOT THE CASE with Thomas Bird Mosher, who entered the arena of fine printing two years ahead of Updike, and, in fact, was the first American to publish books of distinction in limited editions. His first book, the first American edition of George Meredith’s Modern Love, appeared in 1891, the same year that William Morris issued his first book, The Glittering Plain.

Morris and Mosher both loved books. Both were dissatisfied with the ugliness that characterized the bulk of book production at the time. But here the similarity disappears completely. It is true that Mosher tried several frank imitations of Morris’ typographical style, the earliest being Hand and Soul in 1898; and even as late as 1912 he went back twenty years to pick up an initial from the Kelmscott Defense of Guinevere for his folio Memories of Lincoln where it made a surprising fit on the title page. But I credit these peccadillos to irresistible temptation to piracy which flavored Mr. Mosher’s history, to the delight of so many, and certainly to the fury of a few. Mosher’s first book, Modern Love, set a style all his own, which lasted through thirty-two years of publishing; and although he rang many changes on his basic style, the practiced eye of a Mosher addict can spot a Mosher book across the full length of any bookstore. No press has tempted the best efforts of so many of the world’s great binders as has the Mosher Press, but even when rebound in full leather, whether by Zaehnsdorf, Root or Riviere, there is always something about the dimensions and title of a Mosher book that admits its identity to the Mosher collector on sight.

Mosher produced well over three hundred titles during his lifetime. Each was carefully designed to meet the needs of content, whether in the small 16mo of “The Old World Series,” the substantial volumes of collected poetry in his “Quarto Series,” or the occasional thin folio that turned up in the extensive catch-all he called “The Miscellaneous Series.” All Mosher books were hand-set and printed on Van Gelder handmade paper, Japan vellum or pure vellum. Caslon was his favorite type, and he used little touches of color with discrimination, and decorative headpieces and initials with restraint. Most of his books were bound in white vellum paper or in blue, gray or green paper over thin boards with a little printed label for the title on the back, and enclosed in slipcases. Mosher sought to please the eye, to set the proper mood for appreciation of his specially selected treasures. Mosher is not well-known today, and although the rare book dealers seldom concern themselves with Mosher books, possibly because they are not rare as qualified by price, these books are hard to come by even in secondhand bookstores.

Yet there were authoritative voices who spoke highly of Mosher in his time. I have a copy of Bruce Rogers’ privately printed Wordsworth Sonnets, which he inscribed to Mosher in 1906 in these words, “To the Aldus of the 19th Century”; and this was many years before John Henry Nash permitted his printer associates to call him “The Aldus of San Francisco.” A. Edward Newton was proud to have paid tribute to Mosher before his death. And such other writers and book-loving gentlemen as Christopher Morley, Richard Le Gallienne, William Lyon Phelps and Prof. Harry Lyman Koopman of Brown University, have recognized the permanent obligation American literature and printing owed to the solitary workman at Portland, Maine. Although we see the lengthened shadow in these hundreds of exquisite volumes which carried the Mosher imprint into discriminating homes throughout the world, it would be well to know something of the man that cast it. What was Mosher’s real objective behind all this publishing, which resulted in the amazing combination of beauty of physical presentation with enduring literary content, yet at a price that assured that all could drink at these cultural springs who would?

In his 1903 catalogue, Mr. Mosher summarized the results of his first twelve years of publishing, by which time he could list 160 volumes, and in the foreword defined his purpose in these words:

“First and last, the production of these books has been a labour of loveā€¦ not for mere profit in dollars and cents but from the desire of producing beautiful books at a moderate price-‘things of beauty rather than of mere utility’-thereby inducing that personal relationship between craftsman and client without which all doing is labour misapplied.”

In Bruce Rogers’ early days, there was a close relationship between him and Mosher. The first book to carry B.R.’s name was the Mosher Homeward Songs by the Way, by A.E. (George W. Russell), published in 1895, the colophon of which reads, “The designs and headbands by Bruce Rogers.” There are eight designs in the book, two of which are signed. IN READING Grolier 75, I learned for the first time, and much to my surprise, that Thomas Bird Mosher had been a member of the Grolier Club for many years, from 1895 until his death in 1923.