Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Holidays from the Decorative Designers

It’s only a few days until Christmas and, as always at this time of year, our thoughts are turning to seasonal and wintry topics: decorating the house, seeing family, vacation, finding the perfect gift for that strange uncle, being stranded on a train by a blizzard …

To celebrate the season, our last post of 2016 is a fine wintry design from our friends the Decorative Designers. 

Will Carleton. Drifted in. New York: Every Where Publishing Company, 1908. 

The cover is a model of using space effectively, color, and suggestion. The effects are achieved using only two colors (light blue and black) and gilt on a grayish-blue cloth. The central image of the snow-bound train is enclosed in a rigid frame, with the front of the engine only one eighth of an inch from the left frame. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

To Autumn: John Keats and Margaret Armstrong

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;”

-- autumn has come and, unbelievably, is nearly past.  Outside it's overcast with not much of autumn's characteristic crispness, and only a few leaves remain on the trees.  But inside we have a crisp binding to share:  The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited with notes and appendices by H. Buxton Forman.  Complete edition.  New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., c1895.

Before we take a closer look at the design, I hope you’ll bear with me for an anecdote about finding this particular book.  I’ve been travelling to bookstores in search of trade bindings for several decades and browsing for them is not as daunting as it might seem at first.  Although they are generally not displayed with the front covers out, and you’re usually confronted by shelf after shelf (or wall after wall) of book spines, it becomes almost second nature to recognize the look of a book published before 1920, and more often than not to be able to tell in what decade, the 1890s for example, the book was published.  Sliding the book out – not by the headband please! – and glancing at the cover only requires a few seconds, after which the book is either in your pile or back in position and you’re on to the next.  I was once in a bookshop in a small town in northeast Ohio which specialized in small press fantasy and horror titles, comics and ephemera, older paperback science fiction and some general stock, with much of the non-genre books gathered in one place on a range of shelves.  Since trade bindings can be found in almost any subject I glanced over the shelves and, to my great surprise, I spotted a likely candidate almost immediately.  Keats, of course, described my feelings perfectly in his sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 
When a new planet swims into his ken; 
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— 
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

I remember the scene in that small town bookstore looking something like this:

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween with Lee Thayer

Happy Halloween from the American Trade Bindings Collection at UNCG!  After a very busy summer, we’re back with an October pick for you to enjoy as you surreptitiously pilfer candy from your child’s trick or treat bag.  Our featured title is The Scrimshaw Millions, by Lee Thayer (New York: Sears Publishing Company, 1932), and is a part of Special Collections’ large Robbie Emily Dunn Collection of American Detective Fiction.

The book’s cover features a jaunty skull and crossbones wearing(!) spats and a rakishly tipped top hat.  Naturally enough, it’s also smoking a cigarette.  But what catches the binding lover’s eye as much as the cover is the name on the cover – Lee Thayer, aka Emma Redington Lee Thayer (1874-1973), one of the original two Decorative Designers.  For those who don’t know of the firm, they were founded in 1895 by Henry Thayer, who was trained as an architect.  He quickly hired Emma Redington Lee, trained in decorative arts at the Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, and Associated Artists.  Lee married Thayer in 1909, and was thereafter known as Lee Thayer.  What made the Decorative Designers unique for a design firm was that it included several artists and used division of labor to complete designs.  The firm also included (at various times and for varying lengths of time) Rome K. Richardson and Adam Empie who transferred and engraved designs, and Charles Buckles Falls and Jay Chambers who provided figures.  These artists also created cover designs on their own, sometimes using their own monograms (for example, "RR" by Rome Richardson and "F" by Charles Buckles Falls).  Henry Thayer did much of the lettering, and Lee Thayer, provided borders, and ornamental designs.  The firm dissolved in 1931, but was able to produce the astonishing output of over 25,000 design items, including thousands of book covers.  The American Trade Bindings Collection currently includes 120 covers by the Decorative Designers. (1)

But Lee Thayer had another career -- mystery novelist -- which began well before the dissolution of the Decorative Designers. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

New “Finds” (A guest post by Mark Schumacher)

In the last few weeks, we have come across several new illustrators and artists, most of them women, who also contributed to the world of binding design. Most of the books involved are volumes aimed at children—readers, introductions to geography, and tomes of fairy tales or familiar legends, like Robin Hood. Although these designs may not always have the elegance of other covers [see], they do show us artists heretofore unknown as book designers.

Charlotte Harding (1873-1951), a student of Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, worked as an illustrator for several popular magazines in the early 20th century, and was a member of The Plastic Club, an organization for female artists, also in Philadelphia. She also worked with Alice Barber Stephens (1853-1932). Her cover for Eva March Tappan’s Robin Hood, his book (1903) reflects the style of her illustrations for the volume. The illustrations won a Silver Medal at the International Exposition in Saint Louis in 1904! A 1982 exhibit of her works included eight books and scores of magazine illustrations.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What do May flowers bring? April-May Binding of the Month Club

For the newcomers to this blog, here’s a brief statement of what the “Binding of the Month Club” is all about, from our October 2015 post:

“… some covers just do that to you—make a strong initial impression and then stay with you.  Perhaps it’s an unusual cloth color, or an image that's hard to forget, or both … It might be a great example of a design style or what seems to be the representative cover by a certain designer.  It could be a train wreck that you can’t look away from, or something that makes you smile.

To celebrate those covers that either of us just like, our Binding of the Month Club begins this month”

The intent, reasonably enough, was to feature a binding design every month.  So, my apologies for not posting a binding of the month for April—it was not a particularly cruel month, but it was busy.  To partly make up for this April foolish behavior here’s a binding design by the renowned Margaret Armstrong featuring TWO fools!

Wells, Carolyn.  Folly for the Wise.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904.

In addition to easing my conscience, this design holds a distinctive place in the work of Armstrong.  Although her covers could be representative of many genres—ornamental, art nouveau, decorative, floral, emblematic—they very rarely were pictorial.  Even scarcer are figurative designs.  Gullans and Espey note that other than on designs featuring medallions or busts (3 in total), the human face doesn’t appear in her cover designs, and the human figure never. (1)  The last is not strictly true, as Folly for the Wise demonstrates.  The two fools are highly stylized, but they do represent Armstrong’s only human figures.  Not that she could not draw figures and draw them well; illustrations and page decorations she created clearly show this.  But for binding designs she chose not to.

The three faces Gullans and Espey mention, appear on 1) some copies of Prince Tip-Top by Marguerite Bouvet, with a medallion of Cerulea that Gullans and Espey ascribe to Helen Armstrong, Margaret’s sister (Chicago: McClurg, 1892, which we do not have in our collection); 2) a medallion on The New Pacific (pictured below); 3) and a bust of St. Cecilia on Love Letters of a Musician.  The last of these designs re-appears on Later Love Letters of a Musician.

Hubert Howe Bancroft. The New Pacific. New York: Bancroft Co., 1900

Myrtle Reed. Love Letters of a Musician.              Myrtle Reed. Later Love Letters of a Musician.
New York: Putnam, 1899                                          New York: Putnam, 1900

For this two month post, I decided to take my inspiration from the rhyme “April showers bring May flowers” (and, just for laughs, here’s how Wiktionary explains the “proverb”:  “April, traditionally a rainy period, gives way to May, when flowers will bloom because of the water provided to them by the April rains.”)  With that astonishing explanation, I’ll introduce our April Binding of the Month.

Echoes of Life, by Old Don Henri.  Chicago, Ill.: Western Publishing Company, 1888.

This is a title that I had forgotten we had until I started searching for some visualization of rain in a binding design.  When I look at a cover I’m usually first concerned with the front cover—how it looks when you’re about to open the book; then I look at the spine only—how it will look on the shelf.  This book requires a third viewpoint—how it looks when fully open.  Most books keep the main interest on the front cover, often only stamping the author, title, publisher, or some combination on the spine in gilt or white.  Less often the spine features some pictorial feature or other ornamentation.  Infrequently the design is continued from the front cover across the spine, and very infrequently the design stretches across the front cover, spine, and back cover.  For the collector/browser in a bookstore (either when the book was first published or in a modern used book store) the spine is the view one gets.  As a collector, one becomes fairly adept at recognizing in which decade a book was published by the look of the spine, which often indicates whether the covers might be decorated and thus saving valuable browsing time.  This book’s spine is very intriguing with its string of silver and black clouds at the top and a mysterious “Old Don Henri” in silver where the publisher is usually found.

When fully opened the design seems to me to progress from the back cover to the front cover, with the spine providing both a connection and break between the main features of the covers.  The back cover shows a very somber image of clouds and rain with a great deal of brown and black in the silver clouds and only a few streaks of silver in the rain which is mostly rendered in black.  There is no brown in the clouds on the spine where the design is reduced to only 2 ¼ inches.  The front cover explodes with “light”, seemingly from between the silver wings—and I should note here that although the light color appears to be white, on the cover it is clearly silver, a hazard of scanning.  An interesting effect is gained by using the grain of the cloth to enhance the beams of light.  When magnified (see below) the machine created “grain” of the cloth is clearly visible.  On this book, the cloth has a very fine diagonal rib grain, running from the upper left to the lower right.  The silver beams follow the grain exactly with the ribs and spaces between them filled with silver thus brightening the effect.  Of course, the rain on the back cover run counter to the grain, making the back cover design even more somber.

Detail of clouds (from spine).

The last feature I’d like to highlight is the binding’s beveled edges.  This is the first instance of beveled boards seen on this blog, and is a feature most often used on gift books, special editions, or on what we might call coffee table books.  Here's a close up of the bevels on the rear board.

“Old Don Henri” was, not surprisingly, a pseudonym.  The actual author was Henry Lathrop Turner, a military man, who later turned to banking and real estate.  He was born in Oberlin, Ohio on August 26, 1844 and died in Chicago on July 12, 1915.  He was married twice and served in both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of Colonel.  As the obituary in his alma mater’s (Oberlin College) alumni magazine noted “He was a man of fine literary tastes and was the author of books and poems” (2).   His books included The Amateur Speaker's Hand Book (1906), several books on military topics, and books of poems including The Lovely Land of Sunset: a Souvenir of Santa Barbara (1886), Into Death's Country (1887), Sabre, Saddle and Sentiment for the Full Grown: Story and Song for the Little Ones (1893), and, of course, Echoes of Life (1888).  The poems in “Echoes” don't seem particularly inspired and are presented in a variety of typefaces.   One typeface in particular is so eccentric that it’s almost unreadable.  Here’s a few lines from “The Shadow Prince” to give you an idea of the face:

Though Turner uses a variety of metric forms and rhyme schemes, I was interested to see that this one, as well as the other longer poems, are in trochaic tetrameter (the same meter used in Longfellow's Hiawatha!)  Of more interest is the information given on the verso of the title page that lists the illustrators (Myra Manley, W. De Meza, J.L. Denslow and C.E. Sickles, all under the supervision of Mr. Sickles), the printer (Knight & Leonard Co., printers, Chicago), and the binder (W.B. Conkey, binder, Chicago).   An illustration by W. De Meza, also from “The Shadow Prince”, might even be the inspiration for part of the cover design:

We use all of this information when describing a book, and particularly welcome publisher supplied information on the binder or, very rarely, the binding designer.  W.B. Conkey Company was founded by Walter B. Conkey in 1877.  At the age of nineteen, Walter first set up a small bindery in a Chicago basement.  He later added printing work, and by the late 1890s was a large and successful publisher and manufacturer.  In 1897, Conkey built an enormous plant in Hammond, Indiana, a town close to the southern edge of Chicago on the Indiana/Illinois border.  Conkey was widely known for high quality and craftsmanship in all aspects of his company’s work, while maintaining affordable prices.  Among his competitors’ products, his were known for “their durability and their attractive bindings and design.” (3)  His son, Henry, took over the business after Walter’s death in 1923, and the firm was sold in 1949 to Rand McNally.

Engraving of the Hammond plant, from the Lucille Project website (4)

Postcard with another view of the plant from the early 1900s (5)

General location of the W.B. Conkey Hammond, Indiana plant at 617 Conkey Street today (Google Earth view). 

Finally, a note on the publisher.  The Western Publishing House of Chicago, Illinois, was one of a great many “subscription” publishers in the later years of the 19th century.  Briefly, this type of publisher eschewed the static bookseller model where customers came to view and buy products, and instead viewed books as merchandise to be advertised and sold like other products.  A key feature of this method of publishing was the book agent, whose job was to sell the publishers’ products directly to readers by presenting them with what is variously known as “sample books,” “canvassing books,” or “salesmen’s dummies.”  Generally the books were on popular topics and produced cheaply.  They were often illustrated and were made available in a variety of bindings which the customer could choose from when ordering.  Although many firms specialized in this type of publishing, eventually mainstream book publishers and some department stores began their own subscription publishing departments (think Macy’s, for example).  For an in-depth look at the history of American subscription publishing I highly recommend the University of Pennsylvania's online exhibit: "Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America. (6)   One of the canvassing books in our collection is shown below, with our description of the binding.  Note that the front cover and spine uses a calf binding  with panels stamped in gilt, while the back cover partly replicates the front cover, but is bound in a blue textured cloth with no illustrations except for the central cartouche.  The potential customer could select either binding style, although the full calf version would be more expensive.  The online exhibit mentioned above gives many more details about these canvassing books.

The Illustrated New Testament.  New York and Chicago: Goodspeed, 1871. 

 Salesman's sample. Front cover in panelled calf over bevelled boards with gilt stamped vignettes and ornaments, spine in gilt calf; back cover in dark blue (C183) pebble grain cloth over panelled and bevelled boards, gilt stamped central panel; plain calf cover mounted on front pastedown; gilt blue cloth spine stamped in gilt and calf spine sample mounted on rear pastedown.

And now, as promised, on to our "May flower!"

Elwyn Barron.  Manders.  Boston: L.C. Page and Company, 1899.  With cover design by Amy M. Sacker.

This is the first time we’ve featured a binding design by Amy Maria Sacker (1872-1965), although one of her designs appeared in Callie’s post from last July (“Going out”).  Sacker was one of the major artists in the second generation of cover designers (along with other luminaries such as Margaret Armstrong, Alice Morse, Frank Hazenplug, etc.)  A lifelong Bostonian, she produced designs chiefly for a number of major Boston publishers, but also did some work for other publishers outside of Boston including the New York firms of A. Wessels, Thomas Y. Crowell, Cupples & Leon, and Silver, Burdett & Company.  She was also a teacher and worked in a variety of art media.  For much more information and an illustrated catalog of her bookwork (including not only cover designs, but illustrations and bookplates) you should head to our colleague’s, Mark Schumacher’s, Amy Sacker website ( ) where you can see well over 300 of Sacker’s covers.  Our American Trade Bindings site contains 224 cover images.

The outstanding design for Manders is striking in its simplicity, featuring a wonderful art nouveau iris in pale green and pink on a dark blue background.  The heavy gilt capital letters emphasize the rectangular shape of the cover space while providing contrast with the soft and ethereal curves of the flower which grows through the space between the author’s first and last names.  A wonderful detail which also ties together the straight and curved aspects of the design is the adaptation of the double rule border.  Single or multiple rules were a standard part of many cover designs, defining the image space within the confines of the cover.  In earlier posts we saw how these spaces could be broken by having the center image extend beyond or behind the borders.  This design, however, rather than breaking the rule barrier, maintains its normal function of defining space while also incorporating it into the image by using the inner rule to meld into the iris by forming the base of two of the three leaves.  To me this detail of blending the soft with the hard and the living flower with the architectural border is a masterful touch.  The design is modestly signed with Sacker’s A S monogram.  Fortunately for those seeking her designs, Sacker often signed her covers with either the letters A S, or with monograms of “A S” or “A M S” variously arranged.  These and other signatures are also documented at

As opposed to Echoes of Life, the plain spine provides no clue to the glory of the front cover.  It is unadorned save for gilt block capitals and horizontal rules.  It would be easy to overlook this book if it was shelved in the traditional way, although to a collector, this spine looks very characteristic of books published somewhere in the later 1890s or early 1900s.  To a book buyer of 1899, of course, one never knew what could appear on the cover of a book with such a modest spine.  I would hope that I would have taken the chance, been bowled over, and put down my $1.50 with no hesitation.  

And what would I receive for my money?  According to an advertisement in a catalog bound in at the end of Maurus Jokai’s The Baron’s Sons, I was in for “Bright descriptions of student life in Paris, views of human frailty, and a dash of dramatic force” not to mention “A romance sweet as violets.” (7)

Spoilers will follow, so skip the following paragraph if Manders is on your must read list.
A contemporary review described the book as “a bright and wholesome story, introducing a child-hero whom every one will love.”  The titular Edouard Manders is the son of a British cad and Marie, a “Quartier Latin grisette, suspected of posing for artists who were unable to paint draperies and despised landscapes.”  The cad dies, the widowed Marie goes back to modeling, and meets and falls in love with a rich American student, Walter Blakemore.  “What might have been the outcome, had not little Manders interfered, we can only conjecture…” intones the review.  Afterwards Manders sings to raise money, the American leaves, complications ensue, Marie pines away and dies for the love of Walter just after he returns to her in Paris, and Manders grows up to become a famous opera singer.  The favorable review is chiefly because of Manders, “one of the most winsome child characters whom we have met in fiction for many a day.” (8)  The brief notice in The Saturday Review (London) was decidedly more mixed, beginning with “’Manders’ is the piteous story of an unchildlike little child who pondered many things.  The passages relative to America … we dismiss at once, not because they are badly done, but because they have been better done often enough before.”  Ouch.

Finally, a note on the author.  Elwyn Alfred Barron (1855-1929) was born in Lima, New York.  He attended Robert College in Tennessee, and worked at the Chicago Inter-Ocean as a drama critic and editorialist from 1877 to 1895.  During this time he also wrote plays, novels and poetry.  He left Chicago to live in Paris and London where he continued to write novels and plays, sometimes in collaboration with Wilson Barrett.  Between 1900 and 1916 he copyrighted 11 plays.  From 1907 until his death he lived and wrote in New York City.  Both in his plays and novels, Barron often used historical settings. (10)  His works include the plays A mountain pink: realistic description of life among the moonshiners of North Carolina (1885), and an adaptation of George Eliot’s Romola (1897); the novels In Old New York (1900), Marcel Levignet (1906), and The Triple Scar (1907), in addition to Manders which was first published by J. Macqueen, London, in 1898; and the dramatic poem The Viking (1888).

So there you have our bindings for April and May.  Please remember that we welcome comments and would be delighted if you proposed your own binding of the month.  As long as it's in our collection, American Publishers' Trade Bindings, we will feature it on the blog.  If you'd like to provide your own reasons for liking the binding and any other comments, we'll be sure to include them too.   Until next month.

But wait!  I almost didn't remember the question posed in the title of the post.  I know this creaks with age and I shouldn't go there, but I must...

What do May flowers bring?

(1)  Gullans, Charles, and John Espey. Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings.  Los Angeles: Department of Special Collections, UCLA, 1991, p. 22-23.

(2)  Obituary from Oberlin Alumni Magazine, v. 12, no. 1, Oct. 1915, p. 29, viewed online May 26, 2016.

(3)  Murray, Timothy D.  “W.B. Conkey Company.”  In Dzwonkoski, Peter, ed.  American Literary Publishing Houses, 1638-1899, pt. 1. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1986.  Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 49, p. 100-101.


(5)  image from

(6)  "Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America, can be seen at:

(7)  "Selections from L.C. Page and Company’s list of fiction."  Catalog (15 p.) in back of Maurus Jokai, The Baron’s Sons.  Boston: L.C. Page and Company, 1900.

(8)  Review from The Literary World, v. xxx, no. 23, 11 Nov. 1899, p. 375.  Boston: E.H. Hames  Company, 1899.

(9)  The Saturday review of politics, literature, science, and art, 28 Jan. 1899, p. 121, v. 87, no. 2,257. London: Saturday Review Office, 1899.

(10)  Barron, Elwyn A. Papers, finding aid, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Kenny's Choice: March Binding of the Month Club

Welcome to the March 2016 Binding of the Month Club!

Did you know that the University of North Carolina Greensboro digital projects website is not the only place to view our collection of American trade bindings?  If you haven’t discovered them yet, let me encourage you to visit the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) (1). Headquartered at the Boston Public Library, the DPLA was launched in April 2013 after years of planning.  Their website gives this summary of their purpose:

"The vision of a national digital library has been circulating among librarians, scholars, educators, and private industry representatives since the early 1990s.  Efforts led by a range of organizations, including the Library of Congress, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive, have successfully built resources that provide books, images, historic records, and audiovisual materials to anyone with Internet access.  Many universities, public libraries and other public-spirited organizations have digitized materials, but these digital collections often exist in silos.  The DPLA brings these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together in a single platform and portal, providing open and coherent access to our society's digitized cultural heritage." (2)

The UNCG Libraries are a contributing institution to DPLA through the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, one of DPLA’s partners, and our American Publishers’ Trade Bindings (APTB) collection can be viewed in its entirety on DPLA.

Why bring up DPLA on American Trade Bindings and Beyond?  In addition to my personal respect for what they’re doing and the quality of the product (11,776,547 digital items as I write this), and that you can find our bindings on their site, and to celebrate their third anniversary, I was delighted to find that one of their staff is a big fan of APTB!  Let me introduce you to Kenny Whitebloom, Manager of Special Projects at DPLA.  According to his bio, Kenny “works to build DPLA’s network of users and supporters through events and programs, communications, partnerships, strategic initiatives, and other projects that promote growth and innovation. He previously worked at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Kenny holds a MLIS from Simmons School of Library and Information Science and a BA in History and Italian from Vassar College. Kenny’s current favorite DPLA items are the bindings for A Kentucky Cardinal and Aftermath (1900), Like a Gallant Lady (1897), The Tent on the Beach (1899), and The Legatee (1903).”

In addition to his accomplishments, Kenny also has great taste in bindings.  The titles he lists have binding designs by Hugh Thomson, Will Bradley, Margaret Armstrong, and the Decorative Designers respectively--all very heavy hitters in the world of binding design, and innovators in illustration and design.  Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, Ireland and died in London.  He was known for his work in periodical and book illustration.  In our context, he illustrated a number of classic authors, including Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Oliver Goldsmith, as well as contemporary authors such as James Barrie and James Lane Allen.  In the 1880s and 1890s he created binding designs (and illustrations) for a number of books for Macmillan and Kegan Paul.  These are instantly recognizable by their elaborate pictorial scenes, stamped in gilt, and usually on dark cloth (we have five of his covers in the collection).  

Will H. Bradley (1868-1962) was an artist, book, magazine and graphic designer, illustrator, typographer, writer, and was considered one of the pre-eminent poster artists in the United States.  He started his own publishing firm, the Wayside Press, in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1895.  He designed covers for both small presses (H.S. Stone and Way & Williams of Chicago, R.H. Russell of New York) and large publishing firms (Frederick A. Stokes, John Lane, Dodd, Mead and Company (3)).  We've met Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) in several earlier posts and her work will be featured again; many consider her among the best, if not the best, of the binding designers.  For this post, however, my choice from Kenny's favorites is The Legatee, by Alice Prescott Smith (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903), with a binding by the Decorative Designers--I'm an unrepentant fan of designs on black or charcoal gray cloth...

The dramatic pictorial cover shows a forest in flames.  The somber black cloth becomes silhouetted pines against a background of swirling multicolored flames reaching (by implication) far up into the sky.  This cover is a good example of the switching of foreground image (the only inked portion of the design) into background, with the illusion of background black cloth becoming the foreground image.  The extremely restrained lettering in the center of the cover completes the design.  At first glance the darkened portion of the flames in the upper right might be mistaken as intentional, representing smoke among the flames.  After a more careful look at our copy and comparing it to the copy at the University of California, this “effect” turns out to be nothing more than the result of aging and the thousand natural shocks that cloth is heir to.

UNCG copy

                          University of California copy

The Legatee is a story of the lumber districts and lumber trade in the northeastern peninsula of Wisconsin in the early 1870s.  With references to Lake Michigan and the beaches and bluffs around the town of Wilsonport, the location must be the southern coast of the Door Peninsula, though this is not specifically mentioned.  A young Virginian comes to the area after inheriting a lumber mill from his deceased uncle.  There is an immediate clash between the rural, isolated upper Midwest villagers and young Robert Proctor, our hero, who until the Civil War had been a slave owner.  Neither understands the other and hostility grows.  He comes to love Katherine Edminster, the daughter of the local doctor, and her initial animosity gradually turns to affection.  The novel culminates with an account of the Great Peshtigo Fire (though not called this in the book) of October 8-10th, 1871 which devastates the entire region.  A very favorable review in the San Francisco Call of April 26, 1903, draws particular attention to the creation of original characters and the relationships among them, and that the “The catastrophe is worked up with dramatic skill and is described with a genuine intensity of feeling and vividness of pictorial effect.” (4)  

From the November 25, 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly magazine

The fire which climaxes The Legatee was “the worst recorded forest fire in North American history.” Coincidentally (or is it?  There are theories, including aliens …), a much more famous fire broke out the same night, October 8th, in Chicago.  Although the Great Chicago Fire is now part of our shared culture, the Peshtigo fire, which killed between 1500 and 2500 people (the devastation was so great that local records were destroyed and an accurate count was impossible), and burned 1.2 million acres, is little known today.  The fires were caused by a prolonged drought coupled with high temperatures and sudden cyclonic western winds which turned small fires, set to clear forest land, into a firestorm, with “fire tornadoes,” winds over 100 miles per hour, and temperatures of 2,000 degrees. (5)

Little information about the author is readily available.  Alice Prescott Smith wrote four novels in the early part of the twentieth century, The Legatee (1903) being her first.  The next two, Off the Highway (1904) and Montlivet (1906), followed quickly, with her final book, Kindred, appearing in 1925.  The first three novels were published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company and the last by Houghton Mifflin Company, which took this new form of name after incorporating in 1908.   A “List of United States citizens (for the immigration authorities)” dated Dec. 14, 1927 (6), gives her name as a passenger on the S.S. “President Van Buren”, sailing from Marseilles, France, Nov. 30, 1927 and arriving at the port of New York, Dec. 14, 1927.  The same source gives her age as 58 years, 1 month, and her place and date of birth as St. Paul, Minn., Nov. 1, 1859.  Her U.S. address was at 992 Green St., San Francisco, Calif.  The review of The Legatee mentioned above tells us further that Alice grew up among the people and scenes she described.  Her father, a Congregational missionary, had a large parish of widely scattered farms and villages, and Alice accompanied her father on his many long drives from farm to farm and “there was not a village she did not know.”  During these visits she heard many stories of the great fire of October 1871.  The review further states that before The Legatee, she had been “content to write short stories,” and that she had been a resident of San Francisco for the past thirteen years (i.e. since 1890, so she arrived in California at roughly age 31).

"All that's very well--and who doesn't want to know about a huge fire--but what about the binding designer?"  That’s a fair question.  I apologize for treating the main course like dessert, but when it’s the Decorative Designers you really have both in one.  Much is known about the firm, in large part because of the pioneering work of Charles Gullans and John Espey (7) who had the good fortune to interview one of the co-founders of the firm, Lee Thayer, in the early 1970s.  UCLA’s Special Collections holds a substantial “Collection of Materials by and Relating to the Decorative Designers” donated by Gullans and Espey (8). 

 The firm was unique in several ways, first of all because it was a firm.  It was founded in 1895 by the architect Henry Thayer (1867-1940) who quickly hired Emma Reddington Lee (1874-1973), who was trained in the decorative arts.  Emma later married Thayer (1909) and changed her name to Mrs. Lee Thayer.  Two other artists were hired, Rome K. Richardson, (born 1877) and Adam Empie.  Later Charles Buckles Falls (1874-1960) and Jay Chambers (1877-1929) were added.  Most binding designers worked as individuals, whether by contract or commission by publishers, or as art directors for the publishers.  

Another unique feature of the firm was division of labor.  Henry Thayer, trained as an architect, was responsible for a great deal of the lettering on book covers or other work (the firm also did illustration, dust jacket design, advertising, and other design work).  Lee Thayer was responsible for decorative designs and borders.  Richardson, who was with the Decorative Designers from 1896-1901, and Adam Empie transferred the designs to brass plates and engraved them.  Charles Buckles Falls and Jay Chambers, the latter working for the firm from 1902-1913, provided the figurative drawings used for “narrative” designs.  Although work for the firm was either unsigned or signed with their distinctive interlocked DD monogram, with the second “D” reversed, all of the artists working for the firm produced covers that were largely or completely by the single artist.  Falls, Richardson and Empie also signed these solo efforts with distinctive monograms.  Examples of these single designer bindings and monograms are given below (except Empie, as we have no examples of his solo work).  In all, the firm produced an astonishing output of around 25,000 pieces of design work, an unknown number of which were book covers, though they were certainly in the thousands.  The firm was dissolved in 1931 and Lee and Henry Thayer’s marriage ended in divorce the next year.  Our digital collection includes 120 covers by the Decorative Designers at this time.  Only somewhere between 10 and 100 times that number to go!

Cover designs by Lee Thayer (left) and Henry Thayer (right) and Jay Chambers (below)(9)

Cover designs by Rome Richardson (below left) and Charles Buckles Falls (below right)

And their monograms

Thanks again, Kenny, for your interest in the American Publishers’ Trade Bindings digital collection, and for a fine selection of favorites.  And to our visitors, don’t forget that your’s could be the next selection for Binding of the Month.  Just drop us a comment.

(1) Wikipedia article, for a brief overview.
(2) viewed March 30, 2016.
 (3) A nice site with brief biography, checklists of his artistic output and writings, timeline, etc. is at
(4)  “Tale of ‘The Legatee,’ by Alice Prescott Smith, Is Strong in its Types.” Review:  San Francisco Call, Volume 93, Number 147, 26 April 1903.
(5) Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.  Also see “The Peshtigo Fire” ( ) and “The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871” (
(6) “New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957," database with images, FamilySearch (, 4184 - vol 9331, Dec 14, 1927 > image 184 of 486; citing NARA microfilm publication T715 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
(7) For a useful short account of the firm, see:  Gullans, Charles and John Espey. “American Trade Bindings and Their Designers, 1880-1915.” In Peters, Jean, ed. Collectible Books: Some New Paths. New York: Bowker, 1979, p. 32-67.
(8) Online finding aid at:
(9) Attributions by Lee Thayer as reported by Gullans and Espey in Collectible Books.  The image for The Yellow Van is from the invaluable website Publishers Bindings Online (PBO) with my thanks.  We have a copy in our collection but it's in poor condition.