Understanding and Collecting Antiquarian Books (1890-1920): First in a Series

Arts and Crafts Period Books

The following article was written by Larisa Cassell, former president of the MCB board and proprietor of Green Gate Farm Antiquarian Books in Richmond, Missouri.  Larisa, along with fellow board member, Annette Kolling - Buckley, proprietor of Columbia Books in Columbia, Missouri, is a member of the prestigious Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America.  Larisa and Annette are two of only three ABAA members in the state of Missouri. 


The mission of the Missouri Center for the Book is to promote and encourage the inclusion of books in the everyday lives of Missouri citizens.  “The Book”, as much as any other human expression or method of communication, has evolved during its long and varied history.  The death of the printed word has been predicted by many as an inevitable outcome of technology.  The MCB could not disagree more.  Please enjoy the following article, introducing you to the pleasures of collecting older editions of books, specifically in this case from the Arts and Crafts period of design.  (This will be the first in a series of articles about the art and pleasure of collecting “old books”. )

Understanding and Collecting Antiquarian Books: Number One of a Series: 1890-1920

Collectors share many traits. We are lovers by nature. If we collect objects of intrinsic worth wisely and well, we are often crowned kings by default. We will travel absurd distances in pursuit of the objects of our desire. We will lie to dear friends and relatives about the amount of money spent to acquire something valued less than a Christmas ham to the unschooled, but as elusive as a moonbeam to us. We are collectors. We are seekers of the unknown, the undocumented, uncatalogued and hopefully under priced.

In order to cultivate a personal environment that compliments the aesthetics and philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement it behooves the serious student to consult and collect representatives of the graphic and book arts. Cicero said, “ A room without books is as a body without a soul.” A collector, who has constructed or restored a home to represent the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, may do well to carefully reflect upon Cicero’s statement. Without books of the period, an Arts and Crafts home can never capture the fullness of this extraordinary era of artistic achievement in the graphic and applied arts. Such a home risks the shallow satisfaction of being a cold museum display, a home without a heart. How lonely the quarter sawn shelves without their natural companions bound in linen, leather and hand wrought paper. 

The seed of collecting books, not just Arts and Crafts period books, but fine books of any period, is often planted in the fertile fields of memory or need. Some of the most widely known collections of illustrated books began with a few titles that had provided companionship in childhood. Personal libraries of architectural books may start when embarking upon gathering original source material for the construction or restoration of a building. The latter is particularly true of collections of Arts and Crafts books because the aesthetics that were employed in construction and decoration of homes and public buildings are reflected in every aspect of published material of the time. Advertisements, paint sample catalogs and sheet music had the unmistakable “look” that catches the attention of devotees of the period. Due to the common element of late 19th and early 20th century book design it is possible to assemble a very respectable collection in pristine condition by the original artist without spending over $200 for any individual item. 

Once the book-collecting bug has bitten, there are myriad paths for the collector to follow. A gardener might pursue the works of Gertrude Jekyll that offer a cornucopia of books on all aspects of the period garden and of course her collaboration with the architect and author Edward Luytens is a bonus. What about bookbindings? No, not the stuffy drawing room sets that have never been opened but possibly a quirky, original design of the Guild of Women Binders on a volume of love poetry, or maybe a full binding by Cedric Chivers with an original drawing underneath the transparent vellum. If philosophy and the Arts and Crafts ideals are your interest then William Morris and his circle (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, T. J. Cobden Sanderson, John Ruskin, Walter Crane to name a few) can be the beginning of a lifetime of collecting. Morris alone wrote over seventy books in addition to those produced by his legendary Kelmscott Press. Not to forget the graphic arts and book illustration; the 1890’s to the 1920’s ushered in the golden age of book illustration with names such as Aubrey Beardsley, Laurence Houseman, H. Granville Fell, Kay Nielson and many many more. All of these possibilities are available for prices from a few dollars to wherever your bankbook can take you. Book collecting can still be done on a modest scale with the real possibility to use your knowledge to ferret out a treasure at a garage sale, thrift store or other unlikely places of adventure!