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.