Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Project: Proofing Antique Donohue Blocks from the Feller Family Collections

Carl Mario Nudi, at the Vandercook 4 in the background, has already completed more than two hundred proofs.

One of the most interesting projects this summer has been the proofing of our complete holdings of antique blocks from the M. A. Donohue & Company of Chicago.  The blocks are just one component of the Les Feller Family Collections now at the Tampa Book Arts Studio. Letterpress Coordinator Carl Mario Nudi is leading the effort, with help from Joshua Steward, Caitlin Carty, and others. The project involves unwrapping each block, cleaning away at least the first layers of accumulated ink, dust, and dirt with the help of brushes, toothbrushes, and a variety of solvents, and pulling a proof.
One cover block after cleaning, ready to be inked and proofed.

Carl Mario Nudi pulls a proof from the block.
When the project is finished, the studio will have two complete notebooks of proofs that will serve as a catalog of all the blocks in the Feller Family Collections. Donor Lee Harrer and others are already busy locating actual books to match the plates, and this week Carl found a copy of The Natural History ABC.  His copy of the complete book arrived just after he had finished proofing that set of blocks. But, as is often the case with Donohue Company books, the interior and exterior blocks are not always paired consistently from printing to printing. The inside blocks in the case of Natural History are completely different in this physical copy from the blocks held in our collection. This appears to be a standard practice of the company, which supplied young children with interesting and inexpensive books. Donohue & Co. evidently reprinted quickly to replenish stocks, and they appear to have been happy to swap around the texts, as long as they made sense. The outside covers are identical, and both our blocks and the printed book are identified as Series No. 120.
The printed cover, together with our first proof of the black block, which still needs makeready.
Most of the interior blocks in our collection include the signature of the illustrator, Constance White; however, the interior pages in the printed copy are by multiple illustrators—W. A. Cranston, Stanley Berkeley, and Harrison Weir—and they show a range of dates from 1873-1890.  Neither the printed copy nor the set of blocks is dated, though our blocks appear to have been made sometime between 1900 and 1920.

With summer nearly over, there is still a great deal of proofing to be done to complete the project, but each printing session brings fresh discoveries and delightful surprises.  We are looking forward to knowing much more about the full archive—which includes well over four hundred blocks—and about the Donohue Company by summer's end.

Joshua Steward proofs another sheet on the Vandercook 4.

Friday, August 1, 2014

TBAS Library Highlights: Rare Book from American Printer Isaiah Thomas

A battered, heavily worn leather binding from the nineteenth century conceals one of the gems of the Tampa Book Arts Studio Library Collections: the Columbian Dictionary of the English Language published in 1800 by the great American printer and patriot Isaiah Thomas in partnership with his friend and fellow publisher Ebenezer T. Andrews.

Our copy is a gift from our collections chief, J. B. Dobkin, and is one of only nine surviving copies that we have been able to locate in libraries throughout the world. Dobkin describes it as "extremely rare."   Our copy is inscribed with the name of John Lesslie, who lived with his wife, Polly Hyde, in Plymouth, Vermont.

The book was compiled by Yale-educated Massachusetts teacher Caleb Alexander and includes “many new words peculiar to the United States, and many words of general use not found in any other English Dictionary.”  The elaborate title page also states that “the whole is calculated to assist foreigners in acquiring a just pronunciation of the English language, and to be used as a school book by any who wish to study the language grammatically.”

Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston in 1749 and in his youth was apprenticed to a printer.  He is widely known for his publication of the famous eighteenth-century newspaper named the Massachusetts Spy, which he established just about the time he turned twenty-one. In it he championed American Patriot politics from 1770 to 1776 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.  Thomas also printed and published the New England Almanac (1775-1803), published many other important books, established a paper mill, and wrote and published the first comprehensive printing history in the U.S.,  The History of Printing in America (1808).