The Daily Heller: Praise for Peter Pauper Press

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Although it is by no means unsung, when limited-edition or fine press book design and typography is the topic of discussion (maybe just in my limited circle), I no longer hear about or find collectors of the famed Peter Pauper Press books.

Ever since I was a teenager haunting rare book stalls and shops on 4th Avenue, I'd invariably buy a book published by Peter Pauper Press. I must have five copies of ZEN Buddhism (1959), possibly one of its most famous titles. Perhaps it is the craft quality of the printing, the calligraphic lettering styles, even the absence of a Midcentury Modern aesthetic. But Peter Pauper's illustrated books, of which there were—and continue to be—many, has received short shrift in the world of contemporary graphic design history. So let's revisit that history with a tip of the hat to the slew of illustrators, authors and bookmakers involved.

From the press' website:

In 1928, after studying with famed book and type designer Frederic W. Goudy, printer William Edwin Rudge [note: the founder of PRINT], and Melbert B. Cary, 22-year-old Peter Beilenson set up a small press in the basement of his father’s home in Larchmont, New York, and designed and printed about 200 copies of J. M. Synge’s With Petrarch. The entire print run was purchased by a New York bookseller, and the volume was lauded as one of the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ "50 Books of the Year." This was the auspicious beginning of the Peter Pauper Press.

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.

Peter’s son, Nick, in a 1998 New York Times interview, remembered his father as “a very intense, quiet art designer.” His more extroverted mother enjoyed her involvement in the company’s general operations and sales; in 1968, she was named “Who’s Who of American Women” Outstanding Business Woman of the Year.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Peter Pauper Press produced handsome, finely bound letterpress volumes of prose and poetry, including works by John Donne (which are thought to have sparked new interest in the Jacobean poet), Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and hundreds more.

The books were sold at “prices even a pauper could afford,” according to Nick, though many included slipcovers, handmade paper, one- or two-color printing, and illustrations, woodcuts, and graphics by some of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists, including Valenti Angelo, Fritz Kredel, Lynd Ward, Fritz Eichenberg, Raymond Lufkin, 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 to 12 new titles each year until Peter’s death in 1962 at the age of 56.

Edna then took over the business, which thrived until the late 1970s. In a magazine interview at that time, she said, “My career at the Peter Pauper Press has been a lifelong romance.” In addition to her duties at the press, she was also the first woman president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, among the first women elected to the Grolier Club, a president and chairman of the Board of the Goudy Society, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. …

Peter Pauper’s presses kept running until Edna’s death in 1981; after her passing, they almost stopped for good. But her son, Nick Beilenson, a lawyer, and his wife, Evelyn Beilenson, an interior decorator, chose not to let that happen; both changed careers and re-launched the business, moving it to White Plains, New York.

Currently, Evelyn remains Publisher of Peter Pauper Press, Nick has retired, and a third generation is very much involved. Nick and Evelyn’s son, Laurence Beilenson, is now Chief Executive Officer, and his wife, Esther, is Director of Special Sales. Another Beilenson son, John, is a free-lance Peter Pauper author, as is daughter Suzanne.

The books below from what's left of my earlier collection, published in 1953, were illustrated and lettered by Ruth McCrea—and if I were to speculate, I'd say more than a few contemporary illustrators borrowed from McCrea and others working in the Peter Pauper Press style.