A Short History of America’s Oldest Private Press
The Private Press movement suffered a sharp decline during the 1930s, with many presses closing down due to Depression-era costs. A few, however, managed to keep going. One of those intrepid presses was the Trovillion Private Press at the sign of the Silver Horse, which at one point was the oldest operating private press in America. The press was founded by Hal W. Trovillion and operated with his wife, Violet, and together they issued over fifty items from 1908–1960.
Before he established his press, Trovillion was the owner and editor of a small newspaper in Herrin, IL. The inspiration for his press came from two places; the impetus for actually beginning the work came from his friend Thomas Fairbanks, who was a well-known New York importer of fine papers. Fairbanks had a habit of issuing hand-made Christmas cards or pamphlets of holiday wishes to his friends each year, and Trovillion enjoyed these so much that he was inspired to adopt the practice himself (Moran 1959). In 1908, he printed his first holiday item to be sent to his friends—a small, paperbound booklet of selected writings of R. L. Stevenson.
The inspiration for the design of the books to be issued by his press came from the press of Thomas Bird Mosher. Mosher was well known for his small, aesthetically pleasing books printed on high-quality paper, and the Trovillions followed this model for their own publications. After the 1908 Stevenson booklet, Trovillion issued a few more pamphlets under the imprint The Herrin News Shop before publishing his first bound book in 1913. This book was a retrospective of his first trip to Italy, and was the first to include the printer’s mark of the Trovillions—a design inspired by a Venetian gondola bow piece that was found on the trip (Schauinger 1943). A total of nine books were published under the Herrin News imprint, after which three were published under Egyptian Publications, Inc., including an edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. In 1935 The Sundial in our Garden, a book written about their tour of sundials in Britain and Europe, became the first to be published under the imprint Trovillion Private Press.
The books were usually short, often under 100 pages, and their designs simple. The bindings tended to be either a solid color, sometimes with gold or silver flecks, or a geometric pattern of two or three muted colors (shades of brown, green, light purple, etc.). The titles were printed in gilt or on a paper centerpiece pasted to the cover. Sometimes the imprint of the silver horse (devised from the Cornish legend of the Trevelyan family) appeared on the cover as well. The Trovillions used hand-made European papers for printing, except during periods of war when they couldn’t be obtained.
The press aimed to produce small, beautifully designed editions of texts Trovillion and his wife especially enjoyed. The tradition of issuing these books to friends as Christmas gifts was kept throughout the duration of the press, with a new book produced more or less every year. Many of the works printed by the press were chosen for their charm, simplicity, or message. They tended to favor works with sentimental, heartfelt, or moral tones: “We believe that every incident that carries the spirit of the brotherhood of man, the feeling that we are our brother’s keeper, is an appropriate story to send friends as yuletide greetings” (Trovillion, V. 1942).
The Trovillions took care to reflect the content of the text in the design of their books. The book quoted above, Christmas in Review, is a retrospective of books and cards sent by the Trovillions as Christmas greetings over the years. It is a small, thin book with decorative paper boards in soft shades of brown, and endpapers of light green flecked with gold. The text contains excerpts from Charles Dickens and other Christmas favorites, and is illustrated with simple drawings. The design is plain but warm, and conveys the feeling of a cozy family Christmas.
Christmas in Review, by Violet and Hal W. Trovillion, published by the Trovillion Private Press in 1942. Image courtesy of Columbia Books
In addition to sentimental works, the Trovillions developed a good reputation for gardening books (Moran 1954). On a trip to England, they came across two works in particular that became standout publications for their press. After spending weeks in the reading rooms at the British Museum, the Trovillions discovered A Most Brief and Pleasaunt Treatyse, Teachynge Howe to Dress, Sowe, and Set a Garden, the earliest gardening book in the English language. Written in 1563 by Thomas Hyll, the book had not been reprinted since its first publication (Schauinger 1943). The Trovillion press published its first edition in 1938, calling it First Garden Book, a “faithful reprint” of the original work. Although they did not reproduce the gothic typeface, they did make an effort to remain faithful to the original work by retaining the spelling throughout, and including facsimiles of some of the opening chapters.
The second work they discovered in their search at the British Museum was Delightes for Ladies, a seventeenth century compilation of recipes, and treatments for various ailments. Again they tried to remain faithful to the original by including the author’s spelling, this time adding a disclaimer in their introduction explaining their choice, “lest he [the reader] put down the author as a poor scholar especially when it comes to spelling” (Trovillion 1942). They also included a glossary, and a few facsimiles. It was First Garden Book and Delightes for Ladies, along with other publications such as Tussie Mussie, Another Tussie Mussie, and Recipes and Remedies of Early England, that made the Trovillions well-known for their reprints of old cookery and gardening books, and earned them positive reviews in gardening journals throughout the English-speaking world (Moran 1954).
Violet and Hal W. Trovillion operated their press for over fifty years, and the books they issued brought pleasure to many readers. Their small size, lovely decorations, and uplifting messages served as thoughtful Christmas gifts for their friends and peers, and many copies can still be found in libraries and private collections today. The Trovillions embodied the ideals of the private press—printing what they loved for the love of the craft—and they would no doubt be pleased to know that their publications still bring joy to others more than fifty years later!
Moran, J. (1954). An English appraisal of America’s oldest private press (the Trovillion Press of Herrin, Illinois). Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press
Moran, J. and Henrichs, H. F. (1959). The private press at home and abroad. Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press
Schauinger, J. H. (1943). A bibliography of Trovillion Private Press operated by Violet & Hal W.
Trovillion at the sign of the silver horse. Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press
Trovillion, V. (1942). Christmas in review. Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press
Trovillion, V. and Trovillion, H. W., eds. (1942). Delightes for ladies. Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press
By Molly Kernan, Content Volunteer