Letterpress is that ancient and forthright method whereby inked metal type is impressed directly on and into paper.
Fine printing is not fancy printing. It is simply (if not so simple) an articulate search for clarity. In every combination of words, in a few characters for a letterhead or in the complete manuscript for a book, there exists inherent form. In the significance of the words lies the content. It is to this that the typographic designer gives form. If form and content have been agreeably and imaginatively interwoven in harmonious arrangement suitable to purpose, the typographer has fulfilled his function. In his composition of type, his disposition of space, his choice of materials, his capacities for craftsmanship, and in his competence to fuse these varied elements into a clear and reposeful whole, the designer-printer discharges his duty and adds his mite to the amenities of civilization.
JOSEPH BLUMENTHAL AND GEORGE HOFFMAN, both then of the Marchbanks Press in New York, set up an "after-hours" press in 1926 in an era that Blumenthal called "a decade [that] was the peak of a forty-year renaissance in fine printing in Europe and the United States." Incorporated in that year, the press was funded by a capital investment by Blumenthal of $5,500 and depended on the expertise of Hoffman. Blumenthal would often later note that this capital was the only investment ever made in the press. It would and did earn its way from the very beginning. The first press was a foot-operated 12 x 18-inch Golding job press and it was on this press that their first book, Max Weber's Primitives, was published in October 1926 in a edition of 350 and sold for $7.50. Only 100 of the copies were sold.
The partners selected a Norse triskelion as the symbol of the press and called themselves The Spiral Press. Their first customer was Henry Holt & Company who engaged them to design and set title pages for the firm.
As the young Press became established a small but steady and adequate flow of work materialized. It came from book publishers, bookshops, art galleries, museums, libraries, university presses, foundations, academies, clubs, collectors, and a very few industrial firms. The main volume, the bread-and-butter, has always been “job printing" or "ephemera" or whatever one wishes to call it.
THE PRESS CLEARLY SET OUT to make its mark as a fine printer as well as a job printer. In 1927, 1928, and 1929, it produced bi-monthly calendars (#556, #559, #560) that were illustrated by young and exciting artists and given to friends of the press. This had to have encouraged both artists and potential clients.
In 1927, the press began a long and fruitful relationship with both M. Knoedler and Company and with the Weyhe Gallery. For the former, catalogs of exhibitions were produced (#5 through #11 in 1927 alone) and for the latter, the monumental - particularly for a small and unknown press - catalog of the Lewisohn Collecction that was completed in 1928 (#14). This catalog was recoggnized by the American Institute of Graphic Arts as one of the fifty best books of the year, surely an early affirmation of the level of workmanship to which the press aspired. Blumenthal noted that the firm very quickly reached its ideal size with three compositors, an equal number of pressmen, and a combination paper cutter and shipping clerk. The presses consisted of a Kelly NO.2, a ColtssArmory, a Laureate, and job presses for ephemera. Later equippment included a Mergenthaler and a Miehle. The press soon found its capacity with twenty-five to thirty jobs per month or 300 per year. "Nevertheless, no new work ever left our shop without my planning and direct supervision."
Blumenthal went to Europe, and specifically to Germany, in 1928 where he traveled to Cologne, Mainz, and Frankfurt. He vissited the Bauer Type Foundry, Rudolph Koch, Fritz Kredel, Willy Wiegand, and the Bremer Presse. Each of these men and organizaations would later play a role in the history of the press. It was in this same year that Blumenthal met Robert Frost, a relationship that would last until Frost's death in 1963.8 Blumenthal began to work with Frost to plan the publication of Collected Poems for 1930 (#30) and, in 1929, printed a Frost poem, "Christmas Trees," as the Bluumenthal holiday greeting card (#23)' This bit of ephemera may well have inspired the long tradition of a Frost poem printed for the poet, the printer, and the publisher from 1934 to 1962. The Spiral Press would quickly develop a reputation for the beauty of its design and printing of poetry for Frost, W. H. Auden, Pablo Neruuda, William Carlos Williams, RobinsonJeffers, and others.
As with many firms both large and small, the Depression forced The Spiral Press to close. InJanuary 1931, George Hoffmanjoined another firm and Joseph Blumenthal and his wife sailed to Europe so that he could study type design. The result of his studies was a new face. Punches were cut by Louis Hoell in Frankfort and trial pages were set by the Bremer Presse. The type, first named Spiral, was cast in 14-point only and Blumenthal ordered 1,000 pounds of the new face from the Bauer Type Foundry in Frankfort to be sent back to the United States.9 The foundry type was renamed Emerrson, after the poet, and was first used in The Spiral Press's edition of the poet's essay Nature (#38). Blumenthal visited with Stanley Morison of The Monotype Corporation in England on his way back to the United States and the result of this visit was the Monotype version of the face, called Emerson, that was first used in the Coroonation program for King George VI in Westminster Abbey in 1937.
Upon returning to the United States in January 1932, the Press was re-established in Croton Falls, New York, and a major commission from the Limited Editions Club, the club's edition ofVillon's Lyrics (#41), was received almost immediately. With only two Washhington presses, one compositor, two pressmen, and two local boys for oddjobs in addition to the Blumenthals, this was a tremendous project of 112 pages, thirty of which were full page, two-color woodcuts in a edition of 1,500 copies. Many commissions and prooject followed upon the success of the Limited Editions Club publiication, the first of more than a dozen for the club.
In 1933, Blumenthal set up a workshop in the New School for Social Research to teach the book arts. Within two years, he was fully back in the printing business withjob and ephemera printing as well as printing Robert Frost, work for the Limited Editions Club, publications of A. E. Coppard, and W. H. Auden, as well as for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. For the latter, The Spiral Press was its sole printer from its founding to the early 1940S when the flood of work and the size of the press runs became too great for the printer to handle.
During this time, The Spiral Press attempted to publish a series of its own, Rockland Editions (#122, #138, and #569), but it was not a success because of the enormous amount of time the project took from the regular business of printing. Only two books were published out of the proposed five volumes before the project was abandoned. Other projects, however, were great successes. One of those that gave Blumenthal much satisfaction was the publication of the public papers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (#118), a series that met the expectations of both the author and the printer. The press was also able to employ some of the finest illustrators availlable, including Wanda Gag, Emil Ganso, Ben Shahn, J. J. Lankes, Jeanyee Wong, Antonio Frasconi, Fritz Eichenberg, Fritz Kredel, Leonard Baskin, and Reynard Beimiller simply because the clients were willing and eager to have their work illustrated.
The first formal, public show of the work of The Spiral Press was at The Jones Library, Inc., a privately endowed public library in Amherst, Massachusetts, in October 1938.10 That The Jones (#568) was the first to exhibit The Spiral Press is not surprising; the exhibit was the fourth annual exhibition of fine printing and this small but remarkably fine library was also the first to exhibit the work of a very young Robert Frost. Charles R. Green, then the Liibrarian, was a man of both vision and energy. Other honors for the press were to follow, but the rhythm of the press and its clients was disrupted by World War II. In 1943, Blumenthal put the presses into storage and handed work in progress over to the Marchbanks Press. Hejoined the Army Map Service (#570) in order to provide printed maps for troops and officers for the much of the remainnder of the war. When it was announced that he was closing for the duration ofthe war, one knowledgeable critic stated that "No finer printing has ever been done in America than Blumenthal's best. "11
Blumenthal returned to New York late in 1944 and the press was re-opened early in 1945 in the offices of the Marchbanks Press where it remained until 1949 when new quarters were found. Old clients returned immediately and new ones were found. Much of the printing was for museums, libraries, foundations, and educaational institutions including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museeum of Modern Art, the Frick Collection, The Grolier Club, the Twentieth Century Fund, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For the Metropolitan Museum, for example, The Spiral Press printed not only catalogs and monographs, but also the milllions of holiday greeting cards that the museum sold world wide. Some of the monographs were so successful that they were reprintted over and over again. The 1964 Aesop, Five Centuries of Illustrated Fables (#437), for example, was printed in a first run of 15,000 copies and finally reached 40,000 copies in print.
In 1962, the Library Associates of Cornell University mounted an exhibition (#592) entitled "35 Years of The Spiral Press" to honor one of its treasured alumni. Shortly thereafter, the Pierpont Morgan Library expanded and, in the ceiling frieze in the new building, among the printer's marks from Gutenberg to the preesent is the distinctive triskelion of The Spiral Press. This was folllowed by a major exhibition at the Morgan, its first printing exhiibition in twenty-eight years, that opened inJanuary 1966.12 August Hecksher spoke at the opening of the exhibition and his remarks are a paean to the accomplishments of both Blumenthal and the press. 13 Other exhibitions followed including one that began at the Royal Library in Brussels in 1968, continued at the MeermannooWestreenianum Museum in The Hague, and ended at the Nationnal Library of Scotland in 1969 (#503). At the very end of the press's existence, there was an exhibition at the Jewish National and Uniiversity Library in Jerusalem (1971).
Joseph Blumenthal decided to close the press in 1971 and liquiidated its assets in that year. The presses, type, and furniture ended up with friends and colleagues including Roderick Stinehour, David Godine, Yale University, and Dartmouth College. At the lattter, the furniture and type is still in use in the Book Arts Workshop. He continued to teach and write, becoming an acknowledged scholar on the history of printing and preparing a series of exhibiitions on fine printing in Europe and America. His scholarly and cuuratorial work during his later years brought him to the attention of a much wider public. BothJoseph and Anne Blumenthal died in July 1990.'4
J 0 S EPH BLUMENTHAL was modest in his achievements as a designer and printer, but was forthright in his discussion of what makes a well-designed, well printed book. He noted, for example, that "The first thing that we recognize in a well-produced book is a certain tone or quality which is as difficult to define as it is unmisstakable when in evidence."15 He continued in this essay by noting that a press needed a distinctive and characteristic style so that it could be both recognized and appreciated by those who were seekking a specific type of presswork. The integrity, individuality, and reestraint of design was important as were the peculiarities of style that, while perhaps understated, were clearly identifiable as the hallmark of a particular press. In the case of The Spiral Press, one of the most recognizable of all conventions was the swelled rule, "a kind of signature for Spiral Press typography." 16 Blumenthal noted that it was collectors who bought press books and cultural instituutions who ordered fine printing as it was a reflection of the organiization's character. There were also individuals who simply enjoyed beautifully-made books and they, too, acquired the work of The Spiral Press.
Writing some twenty years after the founding of the press, Paul McPharlin described the typical Spiral Press book:
The average Spiral Press book is staid in appearance, very simmple in layout, with a title page of a few centeredlines; it deepends for its richness on beautifully-spaced types, fine paper, and excellent presswork; its quality is in solid workmanship.
August Hecksher, in his remarks at the opening of the Morgan exhibition of the press's work commented that The Spiral Press succeeded because it maintained "absolute standards of excelllence both in design and execution while acting as a sound commmercial venture."
The millions of holiday greeting cards, business cards, staationery, and other commercial work were all done with the same dedication to quality, style, and detail as were the more than six hundred pieces listed in this bibliography. Every piece of Spiral Press printing received the direct attention of Blumenthal and this made a significant difference in the quality of the work produced. What drove Blumenthal to lavish such care on each piece was his unwavering belief in the importance of the printed word. Mter forty years as a fine printer, he wrote:
We are concerned with the tangibles and the intangibles that are essential to fine book production, with an understanding of the physical planning and production of a book which becomes a nootable object of beauty. The designer and printer must first of all posssess a realization of the importance of the book in the development of civilization. The book is a prime cultural heritage. Poetry, knowlledge, the aspirations of mankind have been spread by the book to the whole of society.
This is what made The Spiral Press one of the greatest printing houses of twentieth-century America.