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. 

Her 60 novels, beginning in 1919 with Mystery of the 13th Floor, featured private investigator Peter Clancy, who was later joined by his British valet Wiggar.  Dusty Death (1966) was Thayer’s final Peter Clancy novel.  Her mysteries are not highly regarded now, but certainly must have enjoyed a degree of popularity in their time.  It’s hard to see how 60 of them, many in Dodd, Mead’s “Red Badge Detective” series, would have been published otherwise.  Even though decorated bindings were largely dying out by the time Lee Thayer began writing, a number of her books published before 1932 bear the conjoined DD monogram of the Decorative Designers.  For example:

New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1925 (2)
New York: Sears Publishing Co, 1931

Of more interest is Thayer’s double role as both author and dust jacket designer for her books.  Although Special Collections holds 54 of Thayer’s 60 books, the majority are not in dust jackets.  This isn’t surprising as fiction, particularly genre fiction, was read rather than collected, and dust jackets perished on a grand scale—damaged, worn out, or discarded.  Today they are often very hard to find -- even harder to find in good condition – and can be extremely expensive.  It’s not at all unusual to find that a dust jacket will double, triple or even more highly multiply the cost of a book over a jacket-less copy.

The following are a sampling of Thayer dust jackets that we do hold, and that were selected for their Halloween-appropriateness.  Note that all of these designs include Thayer's new monogram, "LT", and usually include the date.  It’s clear that Lee Thayer never lost her ability to catch and hold the eye, whether with stamped cloth or an excellent jacket!   

and my personal favorite:

Finally, a cover design by Thayer for another of her novels -- in case you need a little help with your candy-pilfering.

1) For an excellent brief overview of the firm and some of their highlights in binding design, see the essay by Charles Gullans and John Espey, “American Trade Bindings and Their Designers,” in Jean Peters (editor). Collectible Books: Some New Paths. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1979.

2) The binding is plain on this copy.  A.L. Burt was a reprint publisher and often did not reproduce cover designs.  This title was first published by Doubleday, Page and Company, and we do not know whether this jacket design or another design was on the original publication, or whether like this printing it was plain.

The dust jackets pictured are all for books by Lee Thayer, published by the New York firm Dodd, Mead & Company:
Dead Reckoning, 1954.
Murder Stalks the Circle, 1947.
Out, Brief Candle! 1948.
Persons Unknown, 1941.

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Did not know about your collection of decorative detective covers. I have a few but nothing to rival your collection, nearly all of them. There are so many great DD covers out there , I try to find them all so just a few authored by LT have come my way since I insist on a DJ. Good to know she did some with stamped cover designs