September 15, 2013
Thomas Bird Mosher: The Pirate of Portland
"Nothing is worth printing that is not worth printing well, accurately, beautifully; yet with simplicity and at moderate cost, so as to be within the reach of everyone" was the belief expressed by the private publisher Thomas Bird Mosher of Portland, Maine. Active during the years of the private press era which boosted fine book making establishments such as the
Kelmscott Press of William Morris, the Vale Press of Charles Ricketts and the Doves Press of Cobden-Sanderson, aimed to make quality literature available in beautifully designed volumes to the general public. His success as a quasi-private press publisher proved to commercial firms that it was possible to produce inexpensive, distinctively designed books that would sell. The authors and texts he published were the ones that he himself loved and wanted others to love as well. Through his work the American public was introduced to ancient and medieval texts and the literature of the Irish Revival, the English Aesthetes, the Victorians, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the French Symbolists. During the course of his career, between 1891 and 1923, he produced 700 book printings, including multiple editions. The unique titles among this huge output numbered about four hundred. In addition to books intended for sale to the general public he privately printed titles to give to friends and colleagues and produced books for clients who could pay for the production of their titles. Mosher's output also included 31 annual catalogs and a monthly literary magazine, The Bibelot, from 1895 to 1915.
One of Mosher's most significant contributions as a publisher was that he printed the work of British writers who were little known in America. Some of his publishing ventures led to him being called a pirate under the international copyright laws of 1870 and 1891. If a foreign publisher did not issue an American edition of their book (had to be typeset, printed and bound in America) an American publisher could. Mosher was not breaking the law when he published works that had no American edition without getting permission from the author or the publisher. He did however break the customary extralegal right of prior publication. The controversy he stirred up turned out to be an effective marketing strategy that made his work much more widely known and contributed to increased sales. Some of the authors he printed did consider him a pirate while others like George Meredith were happy to see their works in print and read by Americans. Whatever may be said of Mosher's activities in this regard he made literature available to the public that would have remained unknown to the wider American public. The fact that both Robert Frost and Ezra Pound were disappointed that their work was never published by the Mosher Press indicates how highly his books were regarded in his day. After his death in 1923 his publishing business carried on under the direction of his long time assistant and manager, Flora Lamb. In 1941 it was sold to the Williams Book Store of Boston who published under the Mosher Press name until they went out of business in the mid-1970s.
Although Mosher was not a trained designer his book design work was considered innovative (although it imitated the the Chiswick Press, the Bodley Head books, and British private presses of the period) and is now considered to be in the Aesthetic style. His success lay in his ability conceive of the book as a unified aesthetic object. He "borrowed" graphic elements from English books, including the work of the private presses and modified them to fit his artistic vision. Mosher's texts are not considered definitive editions but he is given credit for being concerned that the texts of the modern authors he was printing were accurate. Most of Mosher's books were printed as a part of fourteen different series with some titles appearing in more than one series. Publishing books as a part of a series was a common practice in the nineteenth century like William Pickering's Diamond Classics series initiated in 1822 as but one of several examples. The series statements do not always appear on the Mosher books themselves and are known from his catalogs and business papers.
We highlight the book Saint Guido by Richard Jeffries which was issued with Queen Mary's Childgarden by Dr. John Brown in 1901. This title by Jeffries is number 25 in the Brocade series, so called because of the German made and imported brocade paper on the slipcases. This series consisted of 50 titles that were published between 1895 and 1905. The volumes were printed on Japan vellum and have Japan vellum covers. Japan vellum is a stiff, long-fibered paper that is extremely smooth. The Brocade series books with their decorative initials somewhat show the influence of the Chiswick Press, and of William Morris. The spine title is printed in black Jenson and the cover title is printed in a block of black Jenson capitals with a large red decorative initial. This copy of Saint Guido comes to the Kelvin Smith Library from the recent gift of Mosher Press imprints given by Thomas P. Slavin. This gift brings additional titles to Special Collections in the Ideal Series of Little Masterpieces, Lyric Garland Series, Miscellaneous Series, Old World Series, Quarto Series, Venetian Series, Vest Pocket Series and the series called the Reprints of Privately Printed Books. It also adds some of Mosher's vanity press titles and books printed by the Mosher firm after his death.
For more on Thomas Bird Mosher see:
Thomas Bird Mosher: Pirate Prince of Publishers by Philip R. Bishop. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press ; London: The British Library, 1998.
Thomas Bird Mosher and the Art of the Book by Jean-François Vilain & Philip R. Bishop. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1992.
For more on the Mosher Press imprints held by the Department Special Collections at the Kelvin Smith Library contact us at 216-368-3535.