The Gregynog Press
MISS PERRIE JONES, THROUGH WHOSE GENEROSITY the University of Minnesota Library now holds a complete collection of Gregynog Press publications, was a woman of many accomplishments. Over a span of 45 years, from her first post as librarian in her home town, Wabasha, Minnesota, until 1956, when she retired as director of the Saint Paul Public Library, helping people through libraries was her unceasing professional preoccupation. From YM/YW service to Allied troops in France during World War I, Perrie returned home in 1920 with a deep humanitarian concern that led her into the then-under-recognized field of institutional librarianship.
From 1921 to 1937, first as hospital librarian for Saint Paul, then supervisor of institution libraries for the state, Miss Jones pioneered in the development of standards and support for quality library services to patients and inmates. Through a course in hospital librarianship, which she founded at the University of Minnesota Library School, and through her writings on books for hospital and prison libraries, she made significant contributions to this specialized type of library work. As a public library administrator during her final 20 years, Perrie continued to serve institutional librarianship in a nationally recognized advisory role. For this leadership she was honored with the "Exceptional Service Award" by the Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries; and in 1964 the University of Minnesota conferred upon her its most coveted recognition, the "Outstanding Achievement Award" for public service.
Over the years, Perrie Jones was a discriminating book collector, and during her retirement years she gave many of her most valued volumes to the University Library. Outstanding among her holdings, however, was a complete collection of the publications of the Gregynog Press. Miss Jones had always been nostalgic concerning her Welsh ancestry; and during a walking trip in Wales in the 1920s she became acquainted with the two sisters, Gwendolyn and Margaret Davies, who founded this distinguished private press in their home, Gregynog, in Montgomeryshire.
Upon her return to Minnesota, Perrie Jones began collecting the works of this remarkable publishing establishment, which was dedicated to producing, in limited editions, beautifully designed and illustrated books in English and Welsh, emphasizing tasteful typography at its very best. The Gregynog Press published 42 such works during its operation, from 1923 to 1940.
Seeking a fitting permanent home for her collection, Miss Jones gave it to the University in 1962. By that time she had accumulated all but one item, The Life of Saint David. The following year the Library located a copy of this rare and elusive volume, so the collection is now complete. In addition, through the generosity of the Davies family, many separate and special, undated Gregynog sheets or check lists were added to the collection.
Thanks to the foresight and thoughtfulness of Miss Perrie Jones--a truly dedicated librarian, humanitarian and bibliophile--the University Library today can treasure, and make available for scholars and connoisseurs of fine printing, its unsurpassed Gregynog Press collection.
THE DAY WAS INTOLERABLY HOT. THE OLD MEN IN the factory building in London could be seen standing at the windows, seeking cooler air and a capricious breeze, as they rhythmically jerked one muscular arm vigorously outward. Children and even some adult persons sometimes thought the old men were demented inmates of some obscure institution for the afflicted. But the oldsters were quite sane and quite skilled. They were casting printers' types, one at a time, by filling the mold held in one hand from a small ladle of molten type metal and then quickly jerking the hand mold outward, before the metal could cool, so that centrifugal force would carry the liquid metal into and against the intaglio letter form punched in the matrix and produce a sharp, crisp face on the finished printers' type. They had worked at their craft for most of their lives, as others had done before them, far back to the age of Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468).
Printers' types were made thus, slowly and laboriously, until 1838, when David Bruce perfected his typecasting machine which made it possible to cast type much more rapidly and satisfactorily than the hand mold could ever do it. All printers' types were set by hand one at a time, as they had been since the Fifteenth Century, until 1886, when Ottmar Mergenthaler's Linotype was introduced, followed by Tolbert Lanston's Monotype machine in 1897. The Linotype produces cast characters surmounting a solid slug of type metal; the Monotype casts and sets individual types. Both machines can set at least 6,000 letters an hour; the best the skilled hand typesetter could do was 2,000 letters an hour.
The demand for printer's type to be set by hand was enormous. The Government Printing Office once ordered 181,300 pounds, or about 90 tons, of type from a single New York type foundry. Horace Greeley's old New York Tribune for more than 40 years maintained, in a building distant from its office and composing room, a store of many thousands of pounds of printers' types so that the newspaper would not expire if fire destroyed the main printery. The owner of a Saint Louis newspaper kept at his residence a complete stock of all the printers' types used by his publication, for the same reason. Only the typecasting machine--as opposed to the men with the hand molds--could have satisfied such massive needs.
Theodore Low De Vinne, one of the greatest American printers and scholars, remembered in 1910: "It is still quite a pleasure to recollect George Bruce in his little office in Chambers Street [New York], cutting punches with the skill and enthusiasm of the old masters."
The steel punch was the sine qua non in the making of printers' types. On one end of a small billet of soft steel someone had to file out a perfect character for the letter the printer would use. When the punchcutter had finished his work, the soft steel punch was hardened and the letter on the end was driven into a square of copper or brass, creating the obverse version of that particular letter into which type metal would be forced to produce a type. A steel punch thus produced by hand was required for every character--thousands of them--used in the craft of printing.
Then the matrix--or mold in which the character would be cast--had to be trimmed and fitted with consummate care, so that letter-fitting and alignment--meaning the æsthetic relationship of one letter to all the others in a line of printed text--would be as close to the ideal as the artisan could judge. Punchcutting and matrix-fitting exacted skill, conception and judgment of the highest order, equal, at least, to those of the creative goldsmith or silversmith. The Benton punchcutter, introduced in 1885, by a modification of the principles of the child's pantagraph tracing toy, largely eliminated hand punchcutting, and that ancient art declined. The matrix itself, the indispensable element wherever type was cast, remained supreme, regardless of how it was produced.
Compositors--artisans who set type by hand before the advent of the Linotype and Monotype--were men vastly proud of their craft and their work. Typesetting contests were held in many cities and lasted for hours. They attracted large and voluble audiences. Ornate blue ribbons or silver loving cups were given to the winners. The flow of beer and spirits was copious.
Pranks and jests and quiddities abounded. A Chicago printer, Charles E. Leonard, was justifiably proud of his daughter, who became famous on the stage as Lillian Russell. Another Chicago printer, John Wentworth, provoked considerable mirth among his colleagues by designing his own tombstone, with a shaft 50 feet high of white Maine granite, engraved on all four sides with an epitome of the history of his family. The soaring shaft was to cost $50,000--and that was in 1886.
Mock battles in the composing room, where a well pitched printers' type could sting but not injure the head of an unsuspecting colleague, were many times fought when the foreman of the shop had stepped out for a surreptitious beer at a near-by saloon. Printers drank and played together; when death or tragedy struck at a colleague they banded together to help the victim or his relicts. They built up funds for burying departed brother craftsmen.
In Washington the District of Columbia Typographical Union, founded in 1814, was said to be the oldest union in the United States. The International Typographical Union, formed in 1869, still persists--but in small prosperity. In 1892 it opened, on 80 acres of land at Colorado Springs, a home for retired printers with 63 rooms, and built up an imposing library and museum of American typographica. Many of the quixotic tramp printers, who drifted from town to town in hospitable box cars and set type wherever they could find work until the wanderlust seized them again, carried as their most precious possession a membership card in the International Typographical Union, and many of their bizarre cards are preserved at the Printer' Home.
In the age of De Vinne it had been learned that it was not necessary to print on dampened paper stock, as had been done for centuries previously. Papers, inks and presses were improved remarkably, so that the laborious and lengthy practice of dampening printing papers for the press run became almost unknown to younger pressmen entering the field. Flatbed, rotary and web presses were developed which turned out printed sheets faster than the eye could follow them. Hand presses were used only in one-man printeries, in hamlets where motive power was not to be had, by engravers who sought exceptionally sharp proofs, or by owners of private presses who detested the mass-production implications of complex machinery running at incredible speed in factory-like buildings.
The Gregynog Press, established in Newtown, Wales, in 1923 by two granddaughters of a very wealthy man who had been a builder of railroads, bridges and public works, took its name, as did the Kelmscott Press of William Morris, from that of a manor house. The two sisters had bought the estate in 1919. Their press was in every respect a private press, but unlike most private presses, it was bastioned by almost unlimited wealth.
Judged by the venerable traditions of the three greatest private presses England had produced, the Gregynog Press was almost anachronistic. William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891; it perished with his death in 1896. The Doves Press was set up in 1895; the Ashendene Press in 1900. The Gregynog Press was thus almost a quarter-century removed from the great age of English private printing. It persisted until 1940, when the stern exigencies of World War II forced it to suspend operation. In 1951, after the death of one of the sisters, the surviving sister gave the heavy machinery and types to the National Library of Wales. In 1976 it was reported that the library would revive the Gregynog Press.
From 1923 to 1940 the Gregynog Press printed 12,000 copies of 42 volumes. An Albion hand press had been acquired, and later a Victoria platen press was put in, but after a while power-driven production presses were used--a definite sundering of a cardinal tenet of most private presses. Oddly, the first type used was of an American, rather than English, design--the Kennerley of Frederic W. Goudy. Typesetting was done by hand, and the sheets of the first 16 volumes were dampened before they were put through the press. The paper for all the volumes was hand made, and at least 15 copies of every book were bound in red or green full levant morocco. Bindings were as opulent as unhurried hand craftsmanship could make them. Marbled end papers, strangely, were made by coating sheets of paper with thin binders' paste mixed with pigments; this mixture was then brushed, stippled and combed. The marbled sheets were spread out on the lawns to dry and finally were pressed with hot irons to burnish them. The work of the most distinguished illustrators and wood engravers was solicited for the volumes.
Within a few years a Monotype typecasting machine was purchased, and the press had recourse to such fine type faces as Blado, Poliphilus, Romulus, Baskerville, Perpetua and Caslon Old Face, all cast on the premises. At all times there was no lack of competent hands to uphold the tradition of the ideal trinity which most master printers seek--designing, composing and binding carried on in one shop--and it was achieved at the Gregynog Press with relative ease.
A contemporary dealer writes that the prices of some of the more imposing Gregynog books "are now higher by far than many books of the Kelmscott, Ashendene and Doves"--the greatest private presses ever conducted in England--"and all of the Gregynog Press books are sought for avidly and competitively in every book auction where they appear..."
In one sense the Gregynog Press is an impressive stele to an art and a craft that have become all but extinct in scarcely more than the last decade. The hand mold has been entombed for more than a century. The typecasting machine languishes in a slow and unnoticed death; the Linotype and Monotype are similarly moribund. The last gifted punchcutter, Rudolf Koch, died in 1934. There was no one left to take up his great work. That printing process which bears an illegitimate name, "offset lithography," has driven the ancient art of letterpress printing--meaning direct printing from printers' types--into a sepulchral wasteland from which there can be no return. Electronic composing machines now produce a one-column newspaper story on sheets of sensitized stock in two minutes; in 1972 the operator of a Linotype machine would have needed 15 minutes for the setting of the same story. The electronic apparatus cannot think or reason, and so it cannot undo--at least, not yet--the mischief it does to taste or the solecisms it commits with lightning unconcern. Thus the reader is wounded by abominable word divisions, wretched letter fitting and weirdly incomprehensible capitalization. The apparatus does possess astonishing speed and it does, not so astonishingly, all but eliminate the need for printers. And indeed, the ranks of printers are being decimated, and young men no longer seek admittance to the craft as apprentices. The venerable International Typographical Union has fallen on grievously hard days. All that was learned and applied since the time of Gutenberg--meaning half a millennium of compounded artistry and skill--is no longer useful or even esteemed in the judgment of the manager of a modern printing factory. Nor is it likely that his impatient clients will ever desist from their febrile pursuits long enough to offer up a note of grace for an art and a craft which had such eminent practitioners.
But it is no time to be composing jeremiads. The typecasting machine, the punchcutting machine, the Linotype, the Monotype, the power press--all were bitterly attacked when they were introduced, and all withstood the stubborn opposition. Unquestionably, all raised the standards of the printing process in the mass without diminishing or demeaning the printer's skill. Certainly, the defects in automated composition will be ameliorated, and technical advances will bring lightning-fast presses and machinery closer to perfection. The product will be satisfactory to the greater part of the audience for which it is intended, and it may even become decently respectable.
But one who looks at the æsthetic integrity of books like the Gregynog Press may find it hard not to reflect, perhaps, that Tupperware is not Meissen, Grand Rapids kitsch is not Hepplewhite and monkey beads are not Peter Carl Fabergé.
We may be hard put to it to disprove Matthew Arnold's finical stricture of 1888: "What really dissatisfies in American civilization is the want of the interesting, a want due chiefly to the want of those two great elements of the interesting, which are elevation and beauty."