In 1928, after studying with the legendary designer Frederic W. Goudy, the printer and Print magazine publisher William Edwin Rudge, and the great Melbert B. Cary, a 22-year-old named Peter Beilenson became the proprietor of a small press in the basement of his father’s home in Larchmont, New York. He designed and printed 200 copies of J. M. Synge’s With Petrarch. The edition was purchased by a New York bookseller, and received notice in AIGA’s “50 Books of the Year.”
From this humble beginning was launched the Peter Pauper Press, an inexpensive imprint of literature, poetry, cookery, wit, homilies and more that was extremely popular, especially throughout New England.
According to the publisher’s own history (it still exists), “The next year, Edmund B. Thompson joined Beilenson as a partner in the Walpole Printing Office, a limited-editions press named for 18th-century author and private press owner Horace Walpole. Beilenson also began a third imprint for less respectable offerings, entitled ‘At the Sign of the Blue-Behinded Ape.’ After three years, Thompson left the business, and Peter’s wife, Edna Beilenson, became partner. In 1935, they moved Peter Pauper Press to Mount Vernon, New York, where Peter printed special-edition books for publishers such as Random House, New Directions and the Limited Editions Club.”
For around 20 years the Peter Pauper Press produced handsome, finely bound letterpress volumes of prose and poetry, including works by John Donne, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin and hundreds more. The books were sold for around a dollar, which “even a pauper could afford,” according to Nick Beilenson. But quality was high, including slipcovers, handmade paper, one- or two-color printing, and illustrations, woodcuts and graphics by well-known book illustrators, including Fritz Kredel, Lynd Ward, Fritz Eichenberg and Richard Floethe.
“Edna Beilenson also started a cookbook series in the 1950s; she once said it covered everything ‘from abalone to zabaglione.’ She also initiated the use of decorative bindings for smaller gift books. The couple published 10–12 new titles each year until Beilenson’s death in 1962 at the age of 56.”
This quirky Little Joke Book is typical of the lighthearted private press work and the even lighter illustrations that adorned their highly collectible output. I’ll warn you, the jokes are old school, but that may just be the perfect antidote to today’s irony—or lack thereof.
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