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Q&A with Joseph Harbeson about Mosher Press

Joseph Harbeson, Friends of Crestwood Library Board Director, has been sharing his personal collection of books at the Crestwood Library in a series of displays for National Poetry Month. He spoke with us recently about his interest in Mosher Press, a private press founded by American publisher Thomas Bird Mosher (1852-1923).

Could you talk about what happened to the craft of printing by the 1890s, when Thomas Bird Mosher published his first book?

JH: As is indicated in a number of histories of Mosher and other printers, what had happened was, due principally to the Industrial Revolution, the art of printing had sort of fallen by the wayside. By the art of printing, I mean the art of printing nicely manufactured books on nice paper with good typography, etc. Most of the publishing that was being done for the period around the Civil War, and through the early part of the postwar era in the United States and in England, was pretty cheap stuff. It was a lot of magazines and things that were done in serials. For example, most of Dickens’s novels were printed in serials. One or two chapters at a time were printed, and they weren’t published as books. So there was a reaction to that by a number of people including principally William Morris in England, one of the founders of the arts and crafts movement, who thought not just about printing and books but generally that the art of craft – fine craft, fine woodwork, fine architecture, fine building, fine printing, fine papermaking – needed to be restored to a place of prominence. So, starting in England particularly with Morris and some others, they started to look at going back to printing really nice books. Then it bled over into the United States with a number of people, including Thomas Mosher.

What was the major criticism of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and how did Mosher respond to that?

JH: Kelmscott, and Kelmscott with Morris, went a little over the top. [Morris’s] Kelmscott books – and there was a particularly famous volume of Chaucer – is so ornamented, so illustrated, and the printing, the typography, and the fonts used were so elaborate, that people said “This isn’t really for reading, this is for looking at.” Mosher and a number of others in England as well – Doves Press as well – said, “This is very nice, but let’s simplify it.” That is very much what Mosher did. He took out most of the ornamentation. There was some illustration, but for the most part what he was interested in was good quality paper, clear typography with clear fonts, and nicely produced books.

He wanted to make them more affordable, too?

JH: Absolutely. Some of the presses in England got very fancy, and although they were trying to do more things along a simpler line, what they were doing was still very expensive stuff with fancy bindings. Mosher was interested in producing books that most people could afford. There are quite a lot of them out there, which is why I was able to afford many of them now. Some of the other small press books are outside of my economic range. So [Mosher] did 350 or so different series of books, and many reprints of books. Some of them were relatively small editions of 400-500 to maybe up to 1,500, but they were still out there in numbers that people could afford to buy — a couple of dollars for a volume. He put a lot of books out there. He was a very interesting character that way. He was sometimes accused of being something of a pirate. His father was in fact a sea captain in the China trade, and [Mosher] sailed with him for a few journeys to China and back. But when he returned, [Mosher] tried his hand at a number of businesses that didn’t work out. When he started his press, some of his publications were of English authors that he published without permission. His very first book was a book of poetry by George Meredith, and he didn’t get permission from Mr. Meredith to use his work. He was accused of that for a number of things earlier on.

Was piracy common around that time?

JH: Oh yes, quite. There were pirated editions of all of Dickens’s work in the United States. Copyright was not nearly as well enforced, particularly cross-Atlantic. British authors were stolen en masse by a lot of American publishers.

How did you become interested in collecting Mosher books?

JH: I don’t know when it happened. I inherited a number of nice books, principally from my grandparents. Sometime during that process, because I liked books a lot, I started going to bookstores, book sales, and rare book events, and found myself attracted to these books because I do like the simplicity of them. Earlier on, after I first moved to New York, I took some papermaking courses and a couple of bookbinding courses, which I found fascinating. So I became very interested in the making of a nicely done but simple book with nice paper. The Mosher books sort of kept appearing in various places. I would find them in used bookstores, and at a time when I wasn’t make a lot of money, before I was practicing much as a lawyer, they were quite affordable. Some of the books we have in our exhibit I purchased for less than ten dollars, while some that I purchased later cost more. The Bibelot series that I have, it’s a 24-volume series, and [Mosher] did several versions of it, which are just compilations of interesting things. I was able to find that set of over 20 volumes for 45 dollars in a used bookstore. They were beautiful things, and for some reason I became enamored of books as objects, as opposed to just reading them.

What do you think is the most obscure work published by Mosher, or the one that is most difficult to obtain?

JH: Difficult to obtain and most obscure are probably a little different. [Mosher] published a lot of things that he did many times over. He published several editions of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam [Fitzgerald translation], and those are quite easy to find if you look around. There’s a writer [Mosher] liked very much, Ernest Dowson, who was a turn-of-the-century poet. You can probably find [the Dowson books], and they’re probably not terribly expensive, but there aren’t a lot of copies of them around because they weren’t terribly popular in the United States, so [Mosher] didn’t reprint them many times. John Symonds was a well-known poet of that same period, and he did translations of medieval drinking songs [Wine, Women, and Song: Mediaeval Latin Students’ Songs]. It’s a beautiful book, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

What is your favorite Mosher edition?

JH: I would have to say Wine, Women, and Song. Although the other one that we also have in the exhibit is the poems of Francois Villon, which is a translation of medieval, sort of troubadour poetry. My edition of it is kind of beaten around the outside, but the paper’s beautiful. It’s a little larger than many of his books, and the decoration, such as it is, is truly lovely.

What is the most important thing that you hope patrons will learn from the Mosher Press collection?

JH: To appreciate books as objects. There are a lot of beautiful books, and there are a lot of publishers even today who are printing very nicely printed, well-crafted books on acid-free paper. The Everyman Library, for example, is a group that does that. I would just hope that people understand that a book can be appreciated for more than just its contents but also because it’s a beautiful object.

Stop by the Crestwood Library to check out Joseph’s newest display for National Poetry Month!