Book Cover Designs From A Century Ago Inspire A New Line of Personalized Bookplates


Fall 2003 (Vol. IV, No. 3) Table of Contents

Shortly after the turn of the last century, four men and one young woman were engaged in an unusual enterprise from their small suite of offices in Manhattan, little more than a stone’s throw from the heart of the city’s book publishing industry near Union Square. The location was no accident, since publishers were the most frequent buyers of their products. Known as The Decorative Designers, the firm had by this time established itself as a large-volume purveyor of a most unusual commodity–the graphic designs for decorated cloth book bindings.

Founded in 1895 by Henry Thayer, a young architect previously employed by the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead and White, The “DDs,” as they were soon known, quickly grew into a leading supplier of cover art for publishers such as Harper & Brothers, The Century Company, Houghton Mifflin, and T.Y. Crowell. In 1896, Thayer was joined by another talented artist (and his future wife) Emma Reddington Lee, who had studied with Candace Wheeler at the Associated Artists, as well as at the Cooper Union and the Pratt Institute. While Henry excelled at hand lettering in a variety of distinctive alphabets, Ms. Lee was a master of many graphic styles, especially conventionalized botanical designs that appealed to women, who were the predominant buyers of books during this period. After their marriage, Mrs. Thayer later adopted her previous surname as her first name and was known thereafter as “Lee” Thayer.

By 1903, a year which some observers consider one of the firm’s most productive, three other artists had joined the firm, each of whom enjoyed lengthy careers as designers of books, advertising and collateral materials. Rome K. Richardson and Charles Buckles Falls were perhaps the best-known, due in large measure to their work after leaving the firm. The third newcomer, Jay Chambers, was a young bookplate designer who had studied with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He was hired in 1902 and remained with the DDs for many years. Unlike the other staff artists, Chambers excelled at depicting the human figure, so he was responsible for most of the figural designs produced by the firm, many of which are juveniles.

The late professor Charles Gullans, who popularized the collecting of decorated cloth bindings while teaching at UCLA, has estimated that The Decorative Designers prepared more than 25,000 cover designs and related items during their active years, from 1895 to 1931! My own interest in this fascinating field of study began after reading Gullans’ monographs and articles on the subject. Starting as a Margaret Armstrong fan, I soon concluded that many of the DD bindings were of equal quality. I even blasphemed occasionally by suggesting that some of the work of the Thayer group was actually superior to Margaret’s!

As an inevitable result of these interests, the shelves in my bookshop and my home rapidly were overwhelmed by a collection of signed and suspected (but unsigned) DD bindings. Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been working on a checklist of the firm’s covers, as well as scanning and enhancing many of the more impressive designs. As my proficiency with digital editing software improved, I realized that the enhanced high-resolution images, which are “pixel-pure,” might have some useful application. At first, I played around with some shop graphics, making a colorful mailing label out of one DD design, a business card from another.

Earlier this year, after a brainstorming session with a fellow bookseller colleague, Richard Weyhrauch of Revere Books, I decided to experiment with making personalized bookplates from many of those images. The resulting enterprise, which we have dubbed BiblioGraphics, is now up and running. We have about 80 different designs that can be viewed, selected and ordered on this Revere website:

http://www.revere-collection.com/BiblioGraphics.html

We have had many laudatory comments about the designs, as well as some inquiries from fellow book dealers who would like to sell them to their customers. As a result, we have developed an attractive discount schedule for resellers. The bookplates can also be used as premium gifts for important clients. Pricing and physical details can be found at the site above. Questions can also be directed to me personally at the address below. Happy viewing!

THE ANTIQUARIAN ARCHIVE
330 Second Street/Suite Two
Los Altos, CA 94022
Telephone: (650) 949-1593
E-mail: antarch@earthlink.net

We invite you to visit our interactive website at:
http://www.ippi.com/antiquarian-archive.html

 

Note: Accompanying photos are copyrighted in the name of David B. Ogle.

 

David B. Ogle,

Proprietor of The Antiquarian Archive, Los Altos, California

 

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