A Bit of Mystery in “A Little Book of Nature Thoughts”

We have a charming little mystery in the Conservation Lab right now.  A particularly aesthetically pleasing volume from our General Collection,  A Little Book of Nature Thoughts by Richard Jefferies (Mosher Press, 1903) caught my eye as it sat on the shelf awaiting repair.  Its type, its fine laid paper, its worn but once-beautiful sheepskin full leather binding, and its spare but elegant gold-stamped cover decoration all gave this slender, pocket-sized book an air of something special.

A Little Book of Nature Thoughts (1903)
A Little Book of Nature Thoughts (1903)

A little bit of digging revealed some characteristic particularities of Mosher Press editions, which expressed Mosher’s love of the book as artifact, as an object of beauty, and not merely as a utilitarian vessel for its content.  All books were hand-set, usually with Caslon type, with a few, modest decorative flourishes.  Most were printed on Van Gelder hand-made paper, and indeed, our little volume bears the Van Gelder watermark on a few of its pages.  Forty-seven Mosher titles between 1898-1913 were also printed on vellum.  Finally, most of these publisher’s bindings were bound in white, blue, green, or gray paper-covered boards and housed in slipcases.  This last detail about the binding surprised me, until I came across evidence of the allure that Mosher Press editions held for contemporary fine binders.

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According to the program of An Exhibition of Books from the Press of Thomas Bird Mosher from the Collection of Norman H. Strouse (1967), “No press has tempted the best efforts of so many of the world’s great binders as has the Mosher Press, but even when rebound in full leather, whether by the famous Grolier Club Bindery, Zaehnsdorf, or Sangorski & Sutcliffe, there is always something about the dimensions and title of a Mosher book that admits its identity to the Mosher collector on sight.”

Mosher himself was aware of his books’ appeal for the fine binder.  He commented in his 1898 catalog A List of Books in Limited Editions, that “In America, Mr. Otto Zahn, the Misses Nordholf and Bulkley; in London, Miss Prideaux and the Guild of Women Binders have re-clothed in exquisite bindings not a few of the special copies” of his editions.

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Our copy of A Little Book of Nature Thoughts, unfortunately, bears no bindery ticket, and no discernible private mark of its binder.  Something about the blank endpapers and simple, somewhat generic, floral board decoration suggests the work of a larger bindery rather than an individual fine binder in private practice.  I had hoped that the gold-stamped symbol on the back board (pictured above) would provide a clue to the binding’s origin, but my cursory searches have turned up no lead.  If this lit torch, surrounded by intertwined serpents (or vines?), represents a bindery with which you are familiar, then please let us know.  We welcome any and all theories and speculations!

6 Comments

  1. Melissa: No speculation here. The little binding you describe is the publisher’s binding. The gold stamping on the front cover is a design by Frederic Goudy, while the torch on back is a design by Bruce Rogers. You can see this and more in my biobibliography: Thomas Bird Mosher–Pirate Prince of Publishers (New Castle, DE and London: Oak Knoll Press & The British Library, 1998). You can also see much more on the kind of bindings lavished on “The Mosher Books” at the sites:

    http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/9(4)/article1.php

    http://www.thomasbirdmosher.net/bindings/bindings.html

    By the way, I have never discovered who actually did the leather bindings for Thomas Bird Mosher, so that mystery remains.

    Philip R. Bishop
    MOSHER BOOKS

    1. Philip, thank you so much for this excellent explanation. I am once again surprised and delighted by the power of the internet to create connections. We certainly could not have hoped for a more authoritative response to our query. I enjoyed reading through the linked materials, as well, which led to the answer to a question I didn’t ask in the blog post. There is a hint of green in the leather at the middle of the front and back boards, just enough to make me wonder if the leather’s original color was green. In preservation, we are used to seeing a color shift in leather as the result of light damage, but I have never seen light damage so extreme, so I doubted my eyes. However, thanks to you, I have now learned that our volume is part of the “Vest Pocket” series, some of which were originally bound in thin, green leather. I can only assume that the dye used on the leather was not stable, and that fact in conjunction with some light damage caused the color of our volume to shift almost (but not quite entirely) to a golden brown. I have a soft spot in my heart for publisher’s bindings, as some of my previous posts attest, so I am very pleased by the resolution of our little mystery!

      1. Glad that I could shed some light. By the way, Mosher also had some of his Old World Series books put into such flex leather bindings with a different gold stamping of course. Actually, there may have been some put in brown leather, but your pictures definitely show the fugitive color which was the original color of the binding: green. If you or any other folks ever have questions about The Mosher Books, I’ll be glad to try to be of some assistance. I would love to see what your conservation efforts produce on the Vest Pocket “Little Book of Nature Thoughts” by Richard Jefferies. Perhaps you will post some pictures when it’s done.

  2. Hello! My name is Shea Cooley. I am currently a social science teacher in Northern California. I have this very book in sheep skin. I bought it off of a man at a strawberry festival in Galt, Ca. How can I go about getting this appraised for collectors or just myself?

    1. I would go on AbeBooks and look at their Rare Book section. See link:
      https://www.abebooks.com/books/rarebooks/?cm_sp=TopNav-_-Home-_-RBR
      If you enter all the information for your copy of the book, the site will come up with titles that are most similar to yours, or might even be from the same edition. The prices will be included, so that should give you some idea of the book’s monetary value. Best of luck, I apologize for the giant delay in my response, I missed your comment.
      -Sonya

      1. Dear Sonya:
        I replied to you earlier as to the fact that i’s a publisher’s binding, and who did the cover designs. In its present condition, I think it’s only a $5 book, or perhaps a stretch to $10.
        Phil Bishop
        MOSHER BOOKS

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