The world of private press books has almost exclusively been the playground of book collectors and connoisseurs of beautiful objects. You won’t find these books at Chapters or on Amazon, typically. But, if you go back several decades, some of the new bookstores had rare book departments that would deal in private press books and rare, used books as well. Scribner’s was a good example. They were a publisher, with a presence on 5th Avenue in New York that had a rare and used book department that would deal in private press books. Brentano’s is another good example. They were primarily a new book store based out of New York but they expanded internationally, including Canada where they had a storefront on Yonge, just north of Bloor. I can remember going in there in the late 70’s to the back of the store where their “good stuff” was!
So, what is a Private Press Book? The primary source is The Private Press by Roderick Cave, Faber and Faber, London, 1971. In the preface, he quotes John Carter, one of the preeminent book people ever – “the fundamental principle of private press printing; the principle that, whether or not the press has to pay its way, the printer is more interested in making a good book than a fat profit. He prints what he likes, how he likes, not what someone has paid him to print. If now and then he produces something more apt for looking at and handling than for the mundane purpose of reading, remember he is concerned as much with his own pleasure and education as with yours (1961).”
To comment on John Carter. When Glenda and I bought two boxes of books at an auction on the Kingston Peninsula, New Brunswick, in 1974, we were puzzled when we got home and found books in several languages, from as early as the eighteenth century, some signed by authors/illustrators with limited edition detail, and so on. I found a resource in a book called ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter. This book lifted the veil! Originally published in 1951, it has been frequently updated and is still in print. If you are interested in collecting books, I see no better introduction.
Private Press Books are typically printed in the hundreds, if that, created on hand presses that were built in the nineteenth century and have been lovingly kept operational and passed from wild-eyed publisher to wild-eyed publisher.
They are books that are created as beautiful objects, with a focus on printing fonts, often created by these innovators; hand made papers; sumptuous bindings; illustrations, many presses are linked to one specific artist; limited numbers produced and the printing of “large paper” copies with wide margins and sold at a premium, above an already tidy sum per copy. These books are pricy to begin with and the better ones have tended to increase in value in an egregious manner.
There have been hundreds, no thousands, of these presses over the past hundreds of years around the globe. Let’s look at three of them.
This press was only operational for several years in the late 1890s, but what they produced were la crème de la crème! The publisher was William Morris, who in addition to being a publisher was an artist, fabric and wallpaper designer (how do you collect wallpaper? The Marshlands Inn in Sackville, New Brunswick has Morris wallpaper), and more. He and the incredible, English artist Edward Burne-Jones collaborated on many things including stained glass windows and books. The book published by Morris with 87 illustrations by Burne-Jones, widely considered to be the most beautiful book in printed history is the Kelmscott Chaucer.
I used to attend the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair, back in the late 70s and early 80s, and I remember seeing a copy of this book that was for sale at $10,000. I remember thinking – if only! The University of British Columbia acquired a copy in 2016 for US$202,000.
I have been collecting Fanfrolico books for several decades. They were operational from the 1920s into the 1930s. The publisher was Jack Lindsay who was the eldest son of one of Australia’s most revered and controversial artists, Norman Lindsay. The first few titles were produced in Australia and then young Jack, together with P. R. Stephensen, were off to London. A large portion of their works were translations of Greek classics such as Lysistrata by Aristophanes and The Metamorphosis of Ajax.
The attraction of these books, in addition to the fine papers, fonts and bindings were the exquisite illustrations by Norman Lindsay.
Roycroft was a reformist community of craft workers and artists which formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. Elbert Hubbard founded the community in 1895, in the village of East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo. Participants were known as Roycrofters. The work and philosophy of the group, often referred to as the Roycroft movement, had a strong influence on the development of American architecture and design in the early 20th century. His championing of the Arts and Crafts approach attracted a number of visiting craftspeople to East Aurora, and they formed a community of printers, furniture makers, metalsmiths, leathersmiths, and bookbinders. In 1915 Hubbard and his wife, noted suffragist Alice Moore Hubbard, died in the sinking of RMS Lusitania, and the Roycroft community went into a gradual decline.
They produced a number of books and the photos show both the title page and colophon of their first production – The Song of Songs. It is hard not to smile when you read the colophon.