The Private Press movement, an offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement that began in Britain and then spread to America, is a fascinating period in the history of the book, and one of my favorites. At the heart of the private press is the core ideal of the owner printing for his own pleasure, and not for profit or for other people, and the Private Press movement that began in the late 19th century exemplified that ideal. Before I describe a brief history of the movement, it is useful to get a sense of what these books look like. In her book American Book Design and William Morris, Susan O. Thompson identifies some characteristics of private press books made in the Arts and Crafts style; these characteristics include:
Bindings: paper boards with cloth backstrip, title printed on the boards or a paper label pasted to the cover; vellum, often with silk ties, title stamped on front or spine in gold; blind-stamped leather with raised bands, often with clasps
Paper: very white, handmade, thick, often with watermarks, often with deckle edges
Ink: very black, common use of red as the second color for title pages, initials, etc. Sometimes including another color such as blue or green
Other characteristics include the typeface, the format (folio, quarto, etc.), and the layout of the title page, text, and colophon. Now, on to the history!
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, artists and craftsmen such as John Ruskin, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones became disenchanted with what they viewed as the decline of creativity and self-expression, revolting “against sordid standards both socially and aesthetically” (Pickering 1967, 1). Inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851, they formed the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which held it’s first exhibition in 1888-9. This exhibition inspired William Morris to found his own press, the Kelmscott Press, which in turn gave birth to the Private Press Movement proper.
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, bound in white pigskin with clasps, issued by the Kelmscott Press in 1896
Morris was an extremely thorough workman; his desire to achieve what he felt were the superior standards of the 15th-century printers saw him carefully studying every aspect of the craft. He designed a new typeface which he hoped would embody the medieval spirit while at the same time remain easy to read; he did extensive research into finding the right paper, at one point trying to make it himself; he even nearly made a direct appeal to the Pope for some Roman vellum (the Vatican had a monopoly) before a friend suggested a local man who made binding vellums (Cave 1983).
Kelmscott Chaucer, blind-stamped binding with clasps and raised bands. © 2012, Digital Collections at the University of Maryland
While Morris’s press aimed to produce the “book beautiful”, his most famous contemporary, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Press, aimed to produce the “book typographical”. Other private presses such as the Pear Tree Press, the Gregynog Press, and the Golden Cockerel Press sprang up soon after, and were also very successful. One of the earlier presses, the Vale Press, founded by Charles Rickets in 1896, aimed to print English classics in beautiful form. Forty-six books were printed before this press closed in 1903, at which time, following what had by then become a rather delightful custom for a closing press, the types and matrices were thrown into the Thames (Turner 1954).
Page from the Holy Bible, issued in five volumes by the Doves Press 1902-1904]
Amateur activity in America did not flourish the same way that it did in England; the country was too young, and there was “no wealthy leisured class…no country houses and rectories in which gentlemen would dabble in antiquarian printing” (Cave 1983, 127). A few book collectors’ clubs, most notably the Grolier Club in New York, issued a few fine volumes each, but most of the existing amateur work was in the form of journalism. However, towards the end of the 19th century, as artists experimented with illustrations and book design to varying degrees of success, people became more and more interested in the arts of the book.
Journals such as Art Age and American Bookmaker kept people informed of what was going on in Britain, including the works of William Morris, who became the catalyst for American private press owners. Although they craved beautiful book designs, previous efforts of the amateur printers had been rather helter-skelter and overdone. They lacked a model to help them form a more cohesive vision, and Morris proved the galvanizing force (Thompson 1977). Six months after the first book was printed at Kelmscott, the Roberts Brothers press in Boston published a photographic facsimile. Soon after that, original Kelmscott books began to arrive in the states, and Morris himself commissioned American editions of some of his works, which had a great influence on those interested in printing as a hobby.
Morris’s The House of the Wolfings, issued by the Roberts Brothers. © 2012, Digital Collections at the University of Maryland
Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement showed their early influence on private presses in Boston. In 1893, B. D. Updike founded his Merrymount Press, which ran until 1941 and is considered one of the finest representations of the Arts and Crafts style in American book arts (Thompson 1977). Chicago was another literary hotspot; the Auvergne Press, founded in 1895 by William H. Winslow and Chauncey L. Williams, hand printed William C. Gannett’s The House Beautiful with help from none other than Frank Lloyd Wright! They issued a lovely edition decorated in red and black, with a few double page spreads of ornamentation. (Wright was not the only celebrity to try his hand at printing; L. Frank Baum had been interested in printing since he received a press from his father as a teenager, and in 1898 he printed a book of his own poetry, By the Candelabra’s Glare) Other important presses that followed Morris’s style include the Morris Press, the Blue Sky Press, the Mosher Press, and the controversial Roycroft Press, founded by Elbert Hubbard.
Colophon from Erasmus’s Against War, issued by the Merrymount Press in 1908
Hubbard was an important figure for spreading the Arts and Crafts movement across America. After visiting the Kelmscott press in 1894, he was full of excitement for the concept and hurried home to New York to set up the Roycroft Press. In 1896 he printed his first book, The Song of Songs, which was an unsuccessful attempt at imitating Morris’s style (Thompson 1977). Nevertheless, he kept printing. His books were characteristic for having old-style type, hand-colored initials, and chamois covers (which when used as binding material is often called “limp ooze”). His shop soon expanded to include furniture, blacksmithing, and various other crafts, and his press turned into a commercial rather than private venture. His exaggerated style and business-like approach may have alienated private press devotees, but as a result of his efforts, the Arts and Crafts style reached a wider audience, and became better known in America than Britain (Cave 1983).
Robert Browning’s The Last Ride, issued by the Roycroft Press in 1900
The Private Press movements in Britain and America sprang from the same place—a frustration with cheap, mechanized book production—and both can call William Morris their founding father. The movement fizzled out during the depression of the 1930s, but the 1950s saw a resurgence of the private press, and although most seem to have now moved away from the Arts and Crafts style, so many of those lovely books are still in existence. There is so much more to learn about this period in the history of the book; for further reading, see the list of sources below, and stay tuned for next week’s post about one of the oldest continuous private presses in America!
Cave, R., 1983. The private press, 2nd edition, New York City: R. R. Bowker Company.
Pickering, C. L., 1967. The private press movement, [Maidstone]: Maidstone College of Art, School of Printing
Thompson, S.O., 1977. American book design and William Morris, New York City; London: R. R. Bowker Company.
Turner, G., 1954. The private press: its achievement and influence, Birmingham: Association of Assistant Librarians, Midland Division
By Molly Kernan, Content Volunteer