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Pauper’s Riches

May 15, 2009

For a long time now I’ve been collecting Peter Pauper Press books as I find them. I love the paperback size combined with a hardcover binding; I love the letterpress printing (although I suspect that eventually, many were done with offset-lithography printing); I love the illustrations and attention to detail; and I love that they all say “The Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, New York”. What an adventure to live in a place called Mount Vernon! It sounds biblical but remains personable.

Up until recently, I’ve had no idea how many PPP books were printed. That changed with a small, limited edition chapbook that celebrated the life of Peter Beilenson, the founder, typographer, and printer behind the PPP. It’s called Recalling Peter: The Life and Times of Peter Beilenson and his Peter Pauper Press, and though only 700 were printed, the Metro Toronto Reference Library has one in their private stacks. Totally worth renewing my library card for.

This beautiful little book contains short biographical sketches and remembrances about Peter from family and friends, a brief section of reproductions from his many books, and a complete (to that point) checklist of PPP books printed, and a checklist of Peter’s work for other publishers.

I hadn’t, till I read this book, realized what I’d stumbled into.

Peter apprenticed with Frederic Goudy, and worked extensively with New Directions, a small publisher that specializes in publishing authors that are important but outside the mainstream. I had no idea that the man who had been printing books of Japanese haiku also typeset books by Thomas Merton. Happy coincidence!

If you’ve never had the pleasure of holding a PPP book in your hands, rummage through used bookstores till you find one. Buy it. Just buy it. The beautiful typography alone is enough to justify the purchase. But you also get gorgeous illustrations in every book, printed in several colours that resemble traditional woodblock printing. The use of colour is what makes these books shine, always using one (or more) colours to print selected parts of the illustrations in, creating a mosaic of colour you can’t get from photography or more modern design approaches. Designers today would learn much by looking at what Peter accomplished with only such a limited use of colour.

The PPP started out choosing public domain works, but slowly incorporated original works. Peter worked extensively with his wife (as co-partner, business owner and typographer\book designer herself) to expand into cookbooks, joke and puzzle books, and original translations (primarily haiku, which was what first brought PPP to my attention).

The list is extensive…over 400 books! Poetry, cooking, stories, proverbs, aphorisms, folklore, even the United Nations Charter are some of the treasures you’re going to find.

The PPP continues today, but mainly as a seller of gift journals and keepsakes. You can find them online. Only 3 books that resemble the original PPP books from Peter’s time remain, but considering that the press could have folded completely, this is still a good thing. I hope they try to bring back the wonderful editions from the past.

If you love books, typography, or design, you should try to find books by this incredible small press publisher.

The Peter Pauper Press experience is anything but poor.

A list of what I currently own:

African Proverbs
Compiled by Charlotte and Wolf Leslau, illustrated by Jeff Hill
Laundered Limericks
Illustrations by Henry R. Martin
As A Man Thinketh
James Allen, illustrated by Paul McPharlin
Haiku Harvest
Translated by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn, illustrated by Jeff Hill
Japanese Haiku
with Japanese Mon decorations
A Golden Treasury of Psalms and Prayers
Illustrated by Fritz Kredel
All You Need to Know About Herbs and Spices
G.B. Woodin, illustrator unknown
Zen Buddhism
Illustrated with cuts from old Chinese ink paintings
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Edward Fitzgerald, illustrated by Jeff Hill
Flowers of Evil
Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jacques LeClercq, illustrated by Jeff Hill
The Story of the Other Wise Man
Henry Van Dyke, illustrated by Ruth McCrea
The Consolidated Wagster’s Unexpurgated Dictionary of Humor and Wit
Edited by H. Gordon Havens, designed by Scharr Design
Thoughts for a Good Life
illustrated by Ruth McCrea
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