by Alastair Johnston
Since the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been a center not only of entrepreneurial spirit but also of publishing. Writers who had close ties to the press, like Gellett Burgess, Bret Harte, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain, tarried here. A second big influx, in the early twentieth century, brought a community of fine printers that made the city a mecca for independent and creative book artists. Notable among printers of the second wave were the Johnson brothers (two Australian natives who operated the Windsor Press) and Taylor & Taylor, whose principal had been a student of D. B. Updike in the famous course at Harvard Business School out of which Printing Types arose.
Two Midwesterners, the Grabhorn brothers—Edwin and Roberts—turned out to be the most influential printers to appear on the San Francisco scene, the ostentatious presence of John Henry Nash notwithstanding. Arriving from Indiana in 1919 they quickly attracted a loyal clientele and survived the lean years of the Depression through the patronage of Albert Bender, Random House, and the Book Club of California. They made their mark by establishing the bibliophilic field of Californiana, producing works about the history and literature of their adopted state to keep their platens clanking. Their books were remarked for a western version of Bruce Rogers' allusive typography, wedding type and typography to subject. Among their most celebrated works are editions of Leaves of Grass and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, printed in small editions for Random House in the 1920s in the darker types of Fred Goudy and the blackletter of Rudolf Koch. Updike's scholarly influence extended across the continent, and Robert Grabhorn also came under his spell, studying his work for its opinionated discussion of historical types. He discovered that many of the trade books on printing mentioned by Updike—manuals and type specimens in particular—were easily and cheaply obtained, and he caught the bug of collectimania, deciding to gather as many of those titles as he could. Once started on the path, he didn't stop until he had amassed one of the country's most impressive libraries on printing history, containing in addition impressive examples of fine printing beginning with the great Italian and French presses of the sixteenth century, as well as examples of "experimental printing." In 1965 the bulk of Grabhorn's library was given to and purchased by the San Francisco Public Library; the balance came after his death from his widow, Jane (a remarkable printer herself), in 1973. The Grabhorn collection of 1,500 books (now expanded to over 10,000 books, 100 journals, and 35,000 pieces of ephemera) forms the core of the city's Book Arts & Special Collections Center, joining the important Harrison Collection of Calligraphy and Lettering and the Schmulowitz Collections of Wit and Humor (SCOWAH).
Grabhorn wrote a little essay about his collection shortly before his death, describing (in the third person) some of his triumphs as a book collector: "Although the Aldine Virgil of 1501, the first book to be printed in italic types, was far too celebrated to be within his reach, he was able to console himself with the Aldine Dante of 1502, 'picked up' locally for $35." He admits that "gloating comes easily to collectors," when describing some of the treasures he acquired cheaply during the Depression. The celebrated Medailles of the Imprimerie Royale of 1702 (showing the innovative engraved style of letters cut by Grandjean) was his for a mere $55, and he assiduously purchased incunables from the press of Erhard Ratdolt (whom he called "the printer's printer"), including the 1483 Eusebius and the Elements of Euclid. To go with this editio princeps he added the third and fourth editions of Euclid, printed in Venice; the seventeenth-century folio English edition edited by John Dee, important for its articulation of type size and style for emphasis; and the beautiful colored edition of William Pickering, edited by Oliver Byrne (London, 1847), that foreshadows abstract art of a century later. Grabhorn collected editions of orthographic reformer Gian Giorgio Trissino, including that with the first use of Arrighi's chancery type of 1524 (Trissino used Arrighi's Greek characters to distinguish between various Italian pronunciations of o, e & z; his suggestion to use j & v for consonantal i & u were actually adopted). He acquired sought-after Estiennes, Albrecht Dürer's two works printed in his lifetime, Geometry and Human Proportion; and Geofroy Tory's most famous work, his Champ Fleury of 1529. These latter two works share a belief in the derivation of the form of letters from human proportions. Tory believed all letters were based on I and O and brought in the Greek myth of Io to substantiate his ideas. His biggest influence was in the wide acceptance of Roman letterforms over Gothic. A small group of books indicates milestones in the career of another great French printer, Simon de Colines. One of de Colines' earliest works, Raymond Jordan's Idiota de statu religiosorum of 1521 is printed in Venetian type and rubricated, in the manner of manuscript books. Grabhorn acquired Ellic Howe's beautiful copy of the 1531 Terentianus in which de Colines showed off his beautiful new gros romain type—the full-fledged French roman, generally attributed to Garamont, that supplanted the Aldine model. This work, a second-century treatise on metrics that is composed in the various styles—hexameters, iambics, etc.—it discusses, includes the famous pronouncement, in Latin, "Books have their fate, depending on the reader's perception." Another work, from the popularizer of science and royal professor of mathematics at the Sorbonne, Oronce Finé, has wood engravings by the author including a lovely full-page self-portrait with a shapely Urania, the Greek muse of Astronomy. Other early science books in the library include Apiano's Cosmographia of 1548, a book with volvelles—revolving circles of paper that help explain the astronomical principles expounded.
"But it is not just the high spots that make a collection," Grabhorn said in A Printer's Library. "An attempt has been made here to find experiments in printing, typographical curiosities, failures as well as successes. Examples include Joseph Manni's edition of Virgil in 1741—in which he successfully achieves the effect of an important manuscript in rustic capitals by using just three specially cut letters. Updike says of it: "[T]hus the work displays that amazing audacity at arriving at a striking effect, notwithstanding inaccurate details and economy of method, which was typical of Italian printing of the time." Conversely there is Philip Rusher's attempt to create a "new mode of printing" by eliminating all descending letters (q, p, g, etc.) and substituting capitals. This "improvement" stopped with Rasselas (1804)—"a result more curious than beautiful." Among the other typographical curiosities are Valentin Haüy's Essai sur l'Education des Aveugles, printed by Clousier, the King's Printer, in 1786. This book in embossed script type is not merely a precursor of Braille but a whole system for employing blind children in composition and job printing. Another uncommon script work is Mary Potter's 1789 Poetry of Nature, a selection from the Caledonian Bards, which is a prose adaptation of McPherson's Ossian in an unusual, not to say bizarre, layout, by J. P. Cooke of London. Grabhorn doesn't comment on his exquisite Caraccioli volumes, Livre de Quatre Couleurs (1757, or year 4444) and Livre à la Mode (1759), printed in colored inks, nor Andrew Tuer's delightful Quads within Quads, but there is no doubt he enjoyed them. With his collection one can easily take a standard text like Updike or S. H. Steinberg's Five Hundred Years of Printing and systematically find the illustrations. The early Spanish press is the only weak area.
Bill Holman (later of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin) was the City Librarian who helped Grabhorn find a good home for his library when the cares of old age included worrying about an irreplaceable collection of rare books in a city prone to earthquake and fire. The fate of Adolph Sutro's vast hoard of books, which was decimated in the 1906 fire, still haunts many bibliophilic reveries. Holman didn't know how to raise the funds to buy the collection outright, but, realizing the importance of it, he relied on the generosity of the Friends of the Library and, in addition, sent purchase orders through city hall every month until the full amount had been paid. Holman knew it was an unorthodox approach but, he later recollected, he was young and reckless. The Special Collections Department (as it was then known) already had notable holdings: The Max Kuhl bequest (which formed the core of the collection of fine press books) was a random assortment of bibliographic treasures including a twelfth-century New Testament in Latin that had come from a German nunnery via the cornucopia of Sir Thomas Phillipps. Among the incunabula is a beautiful hand-colored Golden Legend from the press of Johann Bamler (Augsburg, 1475). A large, marvelous group focusing on the prolific press of Aldus Manutius, which flourished in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century, accumulated by itself, as rare books sometimes do in great institutions. There are many of the celebrated first editions of secular authors and several copies of Aldus' Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, including the original (1499), the reprint of Paulus Manutius (1545), and a facsimile produced in 1904. The Estiennes' famed works join a less well-known sixteenth-century book of Prodigies, printed by Petri of Basle, in 1557. Examples of fine presswork dot the collection: Baskervilles rub shoulders with eighteenth-century pamphlets documenting scandals and trials (the National Enquirer of the time). In addition to the monumental Manuale of G. B. Bodoni from Grabhorn's library, there are examples of Bodoni's commissioned printing, including the wonderful Poems of Gray, from the Kuhl bequest, and Walpole's Castle of Otranto, an early example of the Gothic horror story.
Of course, the collection houses the work of San Francisco Bay Area printers, but among the surprises is a near-complete collection of the Eragny Press. The unusual productions of Lucien Pissaro's private press were Grabhorn's favorites among all the fine printing of the revival movement, and he waxed effusive on these delicate books and was inspired by the technical finesse manifest in them as some are printed on vellum in closely registered colors. Another memorial bequest was instituted in memory of book designer Jane Hart. George M. Fox's collection of early children's books, particularly noteworthy for their color printing using woodblocks, and a nice complement to the Grabhorn collection, followed. Papermaking and bookbinding are also represented, but the allied field most thoroughly represented is that of calligraphy.
Robert Grabhorn jotted down a list of the most significant type specimen books he owned, starting with the 1628 Vatican specimen (one of the earliest specimen books) and added Propaganda Fide, Rome 1629; Endters, Nuremberg 1721; Caslon, London 1734; Luce, Paris 1740; Fournier, Paris 1764; Enschedé, Haarlem 1768; Bodoni, Parma 1818; Didot, Paris 1819; Dickinson, Boston 1856. With these few notes he covers a rich spectrum of history and the development of printing type from the culmination of Renaissance craftsmanship in the exotics of Robert Granjon to what Updike termed "Didotschen rubbish" and the beginning of Victorian excess. The Propaganda Fide specimen is a collation of sixteen pamphlets of exotic type published by the Jesuits up to 1789. Apart from the early Caslon broadside (which is a later printing done for Chambers' Cyclopedia, 1738–52), there are two books from the foundry of William Caslon III—that of 1785 and that of 1803—showing the changes in typeface and ornament during the transitional period. The 1785 book was a duplicate from the library of W. Bentinck-Smith, whose own spectacular type specimen collection is housed at Harvard's Houghton Library. The rare 1803 specimen, which has the imprint altered in manuscript to "Wm Caslon Jr & Co.", is bound with the same founder's ornament specimen of 1798. The third William Caslon's specimen of 1786 is contained in a section of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopedia, to illustrate the article on printing. Bound alongside it are large folding plates that are specimens from Joseph Fry and Alexander Wilson, both of which show the influence of Baskerville and the peak of the transitional style in English type design. The collection is particularly rich in specimens of the English Fry foundry. Joseph Fry was a Quaker and chocolate manufacturer, his son Edmund trained as a doctor but owing to deafness could not practice successfully, so turned to typefounding and rapidly became a very accomplished punch-cutter, specializing in Hebrew and other non-Roman types. Updike found the Frys somewhat "Quixotic" for, after attempting to market an improved version of the Baskerville model with little success, they reverted to cloning the Caslon style and even flattered themselves, in their specimen book, that the sorts could be mixed indistinguishably from the originals. The Caslons were not amused. On the shelves at the San Francisco Public can be found Joseph Fry's 1786 book with fifty-four leaves, issued four years after his acquisition of an impressive collection of exotic types at the sale of the James Foundry; his son Edmund's 1788 book from his new location in Type Street; as well as the most complete known copy of the Fry and Steele book of 1794. This book shows "a marked advance on its predecessors," according to Talbot Baines Reed, and also includes a large array of metal cast ornaments. Fry was not a great success as a typefounder, despite his undeniable artistic talents with which he could mimic types of other founders with unerring accuracy. He expended a lot of effort in the cutting of sorts for his collection of "learned" types, many of which lay unused in his foundry. After the philological exertions manifest in his great work Pantographia, he cut 400 characters of an English Syriac for Bagster's Polyglot Bible, even changing the name of his foundry to the Polyglot Foundry for the last specimen book, issued in 1824, and present in the Grabhorn collection. Although they excelled in the cutting of Georgian types as seen in the Specimen of Modern Cut Printing Types of 1816, the Frys did not much go in for the new display types coming into vogue. Their books possess all the calm and reserve of the great Regency novels of Jane Austen. Near them stands a pinnacle of early decorated types: the Wood and Sharwoods book of 1834, in which the full filigree of riotous ornament cavorts over some solid early slab serif letterforms, depicting farm animals and floral excess in cornucopic abundance.
The rare French specimens include that of Delacologne (1773), many works of the Fourniers, father and son, (including a 1781 broadside on silk showing "new script types in the English style"), several works of Gillé, the specimen of Gauthier Frère and Cie (Besançon, 1835), and that of Thorey & Virey (Paris, 1843). Luce's rare specimen book contains what was claimed to be the smallest type ever cut until then, a Perle, which is about 4 of our typographic points. Luce completed the work begun by Grandjean at the Imprimerie Royale in Paris. It was there he completed the range of types down to this tiny size, more a display of virtuosity than a practical face. In 1771 he issued another specimen indicating the difference between his own types and those of the Imprimerie Royale, which were protected by Royal mandate. He also accused Fournier of plagiarizing his ornaments and innovative condensed face. "Fournier was the better designer," says A. F. Johnson in Type Designs, "but the idea of his 'poetique', a condensed letter intended for the printing of the long verses of the French Alexandrine without breaking into a second line, was derived from Luce." The Didot work of 1819 promoted his point system, which became an industry standard in Europe. Pierre Didot says in the introduction: "It is true that in the industrial arts there is a point where it is necessary to stop. I do not, however, think I have reached it." The intrinsic interest, elegance, and scope—not to mention incredible rarity—of many of these books have a particular resonance for printers and typographers, many of whom would rather spend an hour with them than with the Kelmscott Chaucer in the collection.
Discussing the Vatican Press specimen—which was published mainly as a work of prestige—Hendrik Vervliet wrote, "Specimens are the best material for the historical study of printing types, whether for their own sake or contributing to more general history or philology." The lasting value of type specimen books is in their manifestation of industrial art, the way one of the most invisible aspects of society—the forms of our letters—changes noticeably over time, subject to technological innovations rather than whims or fads; changes in optics, changes in press technology, inks, papers, and the external influences of other written forms—manuscript, engraving, sign-writing and other commercial lettering—are reflected in them. Typography is the invisible glue that holds a culture together, and most people are unaware of its existence or practice. Yet typographers and designers, as well as historians, need to examine these books, and scholars of type know that in the case of the early type specimen books, each one is likely to be unique, and all have to be studied because leaves were frequently added and dropped as the edition was slowly bound up. San Francisco is fortunate in having the California Historical Society's Kemble Collection near at hand, another trove of printer's manuals and specimen books. But the type specimen and printer's manual collection of Robert Grabhorn is among the richest and most accessible in the country. To the rare Dickinson specimen of 1856, we can add a pair of early Boston specimens: those of the New England Type Foundry of 1834 and the Boston Type and Stereotype Co. of 1837, as well as a specimen of John F. Trow, Printer, Stereotyper (New York, 1856).
Another extremely rare printer's specimen is that of Joseph Aston of Manchester, 1808. Like Grabhorn, Aston was a provincial printer of taste with a few good patrons. He laid in a stock of the finest types available at this key time in the development of printing types and produced a beautiful small pamphlet, of which I know only one other copy. Grabhorn also owned the 1840 specimen book of William Davison of Alnwick, a provincial printer better known than Aston because of his association with Thomas Bewick. A charming companion piece is an early chapbook of Davison's: Sarah Wilkinson's The History of Crazy Jane (Alnwick, 1818), with engravings by Luke Clennell, Bewick's pupil. One can imagine the fun in the Grabhorn household when Robert teased his wife, Jane, with the ballad.
Grabhorn acquired a full complement of printer's manuals and again listed the principal ones in note form: "Ernesti and Gessner, Germany; Fertel, Vincard, Brun, Frey, and Crapelet, France; Smith, Stower, Johnson, Hansard, Savage, and Timperley, England; MacKellar, Adams, and DeVinne, America." Gessner's work (from which Updike drew illustrations) contained important specimens of the "real Dutch types" of the Erhardt foundry and the work of Breitkopf, also of Leipsic, who was praised by Fournier as a major German typefounder of the eighteenth century. Ernesti's 1733 book contained the types of Andrea Endters, which Updike classified, with characteristic finality, as "forty-seven varieties of every degree of tastelessness and, in the smaller sizes, every variety of illegibility."
Fertel's book is the first important printer's manual published in French. Of the Marcelin Brun work, printed by Didot in 1825, Bigmore and Wyman wrote that it is "quite a gem from a typographic point of view," having virtually no hyphens! When Crapelet's preface to his work was published, the English bibliomaniac Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin decried it as "his first, hoped to be his last, contribution of literature." But, like the book-crazed cleric, Crapelet went on to write many other works.
The Grabhorn collection includes James Watson's 1713 work, printed in Edinburgh in avowedly Dutch types (though as John Lane points out, "What Updike shows as by implication [seventeenth- century] 'Dutch types used in England', are in reality eighteenth-century English types used in Scotland!") The scarce anonymous 1770 edition of Philip Luckombe's Concise History of the Origin and Progress of Printing (with the 1771 title page laid in, retitling the work The History and Art of Printing), is foremost among a royal flush of English printer's manuals.
John Smith was the English author from whose 1755 Printer's Grammar most later writers took their texts. He may have been a Prussian immigrant and makes scathing remarks about German typographic practice throughout his work. Luckombe, Stower, and Timperley all used him, as pointed out by Timperley in the preface to his Printer's Manual. Stower's hasty abridgment included the Fry specimen of 1787 that copied Caslon's style. Johnson and Hansard wrote very different books, at the same time, called Typographia, but both borrowed from Smith via Stower. Johnson's work was more original, but he was censured by the critics of the time for his decorative printing. Savage, in 1841, returned to Moxon, but as Moxon's editors point out, "thenceforward any use made of Moxon in technical books on printing was consciously antiquarian."
Grabhorn comments: "These men had a way of borrowing from each other and themselves in their various editions. The father of most of them was Joseph Moxon in his Mechanick Exercises of 1683. Here, this collection has had to make do with DeVinne's annotated reprint edition of 1896." However, although there are less than seventy known surviving copies of Moxon, the Jackson Burke copy was purchased from Dawson's of Los Angeles in 1975; its arrival at the library was celebrated with a special event. The money to purchase the Moxon came from an auction of duplicates, and there was enough left to also purchase one of the typographical masterpieces of the twentieth century: Bruce Rogers's Oxford Lectern Bible, a real "trouser-press" of a book, as Stanley Morison said.
The Grabhorn collection contains several scarcer printer's manuals, including George Trumbull's Pocket Typographia (Albany, New York, 1846, largely compiled from Savage's Dictionary of 1841), and A. N. Sherman's Printer's Manual (New York, 1834).
Through the public library's collection I have been able to trace quotations used in nineteenth- century specimen books to their sources in the earliest English-language histories of printing. I have traced many of the oft-paraphrased chestnuts back through the pages of specimen books to works by Luckombe, Johnson, Hansard, and Smith, and lesser-known writers like Palmer and Lemoine. As Smith noted, "Which observation we have made on purpose to assist those who delight to exercise themselves in that painful study which attends writing De Origine rerum." I have become convinced that their grandiloquence had some truth behind it when, for example, Philip Luckombe wrote, in 1771: "The usefulness of the art of printing is so universally acknowledged, it needs no proof: every one knows, without the invention of this Art, the productions of great men would have been confined in the possession of a few, and of no utility to posterity."
Fortunately, the library has taken the right road in conservation, and, rather than rebinding broken and damaged books (losing in the process original boards and endpapers), the current policy is to preserve the books in protective enclosures. (The book blocks still articulate perfectly when the boards are detached; they just require more care in handling.)
Grabhorn concluded in his essay, "Holes must be filled, new discoveries are made, and there are continuing contributions to the subject. It is the duty of a library to keep its collections alive and more than that to make its resources known." The collection is a growing, living entity and is in constant use. Being in a public institution, it is open to everyone. The librarians encourage teachers to bring in their classes. The neophyte design students I've brought in never fail to make the connection that the typography in these books is far from dead history and an important standard to study. Type designers drop by to examine rare specimen books, and calligraphers and binders make frequent use of the collection. The San Francisco Public has fulfilled Grabhorn's charge, despite tightening civic budgets, in accessioning important new works in the book arts, like James Mosley's 1993 study of L. J. Pouchée's Ornamented Types, a newly documented collection of wood type patterns that shows the efflorescence of display type decoration in the Regency.
Though trendy critics regularly signal the imminent demise of the book, it still has validity as an ultimate source, as a repository of knowledge, and a cultural indicator. Our uses for the book may change, but it is not a closed form; it is a wonderfully concise container of ideas that expresses itself and its time not just in the author's words but in the typography and production values. A collection such as the Grabhorn is an inviting slice of history, concentrating on the period when ideas became fixed in written form and mass-communicated in print. But beyond this, the Grabhorn collection documents the small steps that were taken by the book manufacturers in improving the typefaces, the ideas of proportion and balance, and the materials of the book, making it the perfect behind-the-scenes collection for the study of the mechanics of culture.
One can only reiterate the importance of a collection such as the Grabhorn to us, by quoting from one of the books in it, John Johnson's Typographia of 1824: "Of all the discoveries which have been made, we conceive the reflecting mind will admit that none have tended more to the improvement and comfort of society than that of printing."
Alastair Johnston is a partner with Frances Butler in Poltroon Press, Berkeley, which was established in 1975. He teaches typography and book design at the Universityof California, Berkeley, Extension. Since 1986, he has edited the Pacific Center for the Book Arts quarterly journal, The Ampersand. An earlier version of this article appeared in Bookways, published by W. Thomas Taylor, in Austin, Texas.
Thanks to the staff of the Book Arts and Special Collections Center.