Combining the beautiful with pleasant labor: illuminated manuscripts and the handprinting press

In celebration of “March is reading month,” I began thinking upon writing about something book-related. As I kept on thinking about it, I discovered more and more fun things, and ended up with a blog post that covers 1300 years of reading-related history that brings us right up to the minute; well, last weekend at least. Sounds like a lot for a short blog post but don’t worry, I’ve squeezed the first 700 years into one paragraph.

And so to begins with illuminated manuscripts, which were written and decorated entirely by hand—the only way to make a book in the medieval period. Reflecting the spiritual focus of medieval society, its art was always divinely-inspired. Illuminated manuscripts are among the most beautiful examples of how medieval artisans sought to create something glorious that was, at the same time, a thing to be used in everyday life. Illuminated manuscripts are most often liturgical texts, such as psalters, which were later superseded by Books of Hours. Medieval literary texts were illuminated as well, including those of Chaucer, Dante, and the tale of Tondal, written by an Irish monk in Germany. One of the most notable of early illuminated manuscripts are the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were written in 715 in the local vernacular rather than Latin. As paper did not enter the European market until the sixteenth century, illuminated manuscripts are made of parchment or vellum. The style of writing or script that you will see in early manuscripts is ‘book hand,’ also known as Anglicana in its slightly differentiated English style, and later texts may use Court or Secretary hand.

Gutenberg leaf

A Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455. Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and henceforth the process of making books was changed. The Gutenberg Bible, as shown in the image above, is one of the earliest books printed using the printing press and it follows the Vulgate translation by St. Jerome that is also one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts. The introduction of the printing press did not put an end to beautifully decorated texts; they became handprinted and illuminated, rather than handwritten. George Gough Booth studied the work of the ancient printers, from Gutenberg and Ulrich Zell—from whom William Caxton learned the craft, to Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde, and Nicholas Jenson. It is Jenson that Booth states perfected the art of printing by improving the Roman characters. The Cranbrook Papers are printed in a modern adaptation of Jenson’s Roman typeface.

Inspired by the work of ancient printers and William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, Booth established the Cranbrook Press in 1900. Text was created using a Lion Reliance Press, then the initials and borders were illuminated by hand by Booth himself. Between 1900 and 1902, nine books were printed and decorated in this way, including reprints of books such as the “Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” by Caxton, and “Utopia” by Sir Thomas More. The Cranbrook Press also produced original works such as the monthly broadsheet, the “Cranbrook Papers,” and books such as the “Pleasures of Planting”.

By studying the materials in the George Gough Booth Papers at Cranbrook Archives, we can learn about and understand his motivation and vision for the Cranbrook Press:

“…work most agreeable to my tastes and inclinations that combined the beautiful with pleasant labor and inspired by the record of ancient printers and the modern endeavors of Wm. Morris. I have sought here to begin a modest work for the pleasure of striving to do good work not out of harmony with my chosen life work”.

Although the Cranbrook Press ceased in 1902, Booth’s vision to combine the beautiful with good work has an enduring presence at Cranbrook Educational Community. The materials that are preserved and made accessible at Cranbrook Archives help us remember and perpetuate this vision in each of the institutions that form the community.

Last weekend, the Center for Collections and Research hosted an event in collaboration with Signal-Return in Detroit that really shows how the archives can inform our knowledge of local history and inspire the cultivation of handcrafted art. The event, ““Work Most Agreeable”: George Booth and the Cranbrook Press,” was a presentation and hands-on letterpress workshop where participants created handprinted poster with one of George Booth’s mottos using the traditional letterpress method that Signal-Return still employs.

The Center of Collections and Research hosts many events throughout the year, you can see what’s coming up next here and join the newsletter to keep up to date.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Eagle Scout Project in Smith House

This past March, the Center for Collections and Research was honored to host Kevin Wilburn, a Life Scout going for the rank advancement of Eagle Scout, as he performed his required service project.

https://www.scouting.org/programs/boy-scouts/advancement-and-awards/eagle

Eagle Scout badge from scouting.org

The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law. The ranks of the Boy Scouts are Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle. To receive the highest achievement rank in the Boy Scouts of America, a Life Scout must not only earn twenty-one merit badges but also perform an extensive service project. He must plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or his community.

Kevin’s project was to work with the book collection in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House. It was especially great having Kevin work with the house, as Robert Smith, the only son of Melvyn and Sara, also achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in his youth (the Smith House collection contains his Eagle Scout uniform).

When Cranbrook acquired the Smith House late last year, we also acquired the extensive library amassed by the Smiths. The collection of more than 900 works ranges from books on Frank Lloyd Wright to Art in America and other periodicals, to yearbooks and popular fiction.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (2)

Kevin and his team working on the Smith House book collection.

On the day of the project, Kevin and his team of scouts and parent volunteers did an inventory of the books in the Living Room and the Study. They utilized a computer program which allowed them to gather all pertinent information about the books by simply searching the Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) or the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). They also took images of the books as well as any inscriptions found within. What they ended up with, after just one day working in only two rooms in the house, was a database of 658 individual titles. (Knowing how many more books are in the other rooms, maybe there are more than 900 books in the house…)

I recently asked Kevin his thoughts on the project over email:

LM: First off, what does becoming an Eagle Scout mean to you?

KW: I’ve been in Scouts for 11 years now there were times that I questioned my continuation in Scouts. However, on the cusp of this final accomplishment, I don’t regret staying on the path. It has been a lot of commitment and there is no substitution for the hard work required, but as a scout, I have had opportunities so few people get to have—just like doing this project. It is special to be part of the small group of Scouts that accomplish the Eagle Rank. I think the Scout program and achieving Eagle has made me a better person.

LM: Can you give me your overall impression of the Smith House?

KW: To me, I struggle with the words to describe the Smith House. It is truly a one-of-a-kind home and the attention to detail is absolutely marvelous. Whether it’s the striking color of the red tidewater cypress wood that forms the walls or the glistening flat skylights that illuminate the tight, yet airy library, this home is Usonian Style in its truest form. Additionally, there is such a great story to the Smith’s and how the house came to be that makes it even more special than the physical aspects.

LM: What motivated you to take on this project?

KW: The driving force behind this entire project was the fact that I was assisting in the preservation of a Wright-designed home. I’ve always had an appreciation for his work and have a personal interest in helping the preservation of his work. I never expected that I would have such a unique opportunity to combine my passion and interest so directly on my Eagle project—it was a truly special project. I really appreciate the opportunity Cranbrook provided me.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (1)

Kevin photographing one of the 658 titles cataloged during the one-day project.

LM: What was the hardest thing about the project?

KW: We had very unique requirements compared to many projects that are often construction based, so going into it I knew that getting people started on the cataloging process would be difficult and it probably took an hour for volunteers to get into a rhythm. It was also physically demanding, in some cases sitting or standing for hours at a time—luckily we were able to rotate some positions to help people with fatigue. In the end, the hardest part was it was a very long 10 hour day typing in book details into our cataloging software and photographing the books.

LM: What was your favorite part of the project?

KW: Planning to pursue architecture as a career, I’ve always been interested in Frank Lloyd Wright; so, my favorite part was to be able to do a project in one of his Usonian homes. It was also exciting during the cataloging process to see some of the personal connections of the Smiths with Wright.

LM: Any final thoughts?

KW: I want to thank Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar, for supporting the project, and Lynette Mayman, Program Presenter, for being on-site during the project. I also want to thank the members of Troop 1005 that came out to support this effort. Finally, I want to thank Collectorz.com for donating the Book Collector software used to catalog the collection.

EagleScoutProject_Mar2018 (KevinWilburn) (4)

Kevin (fourth from the right) and some of his team of volunteers on the back patio of Smith House.

The Center for Collections and Research wishes Kevin the best of luck in achieving his Eagle Rank and would like to thank him and his team for the hours of work on this project.

Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar

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