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The Caxtonian



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The Caxton Club of Chicago was founded in 1895 by fifteen Chicago bibliophiles who desired to support the publication of fine books in the spirit of the prevailing Arts and Crafts Movement. They named the new organization the "Caxton Club" in honor of the first English printer, William Caxton. Born in England in 1422, Caxton traveled to Cologne, Germany, in 1471 to learn the fledgling printing trade. Several years later in Flanders, he helped to produce the first book printed in the English language: a translation of the story of Troy entitled The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. He returned to England, imported a press from the Netherlands, and set up his printing press near Westminster Abbey. In 1477 he printed the first book in England, The Dictes or Sayings of the Philosophers. Another notable achievement, one year later, was the first publication of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The founders were collectors, publishers, designers, and librarians. Their primary objective in forming the Caxton Club was to publish books of quality, both in content and design, primarily for their own personal libraries. They were following the lead of four other newly-formed book clubs: The Grolier Club in New York (1884), the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston (1886), the Rowfant Club in Cleveland (1892), and the Philobiblon Club in Philadelphia (1893).

The founders also had three secondary objectives: to have Club rooms where they could escape from the day-to-day exigencies of family and the business world; to hold exhibitions for the edification of family, friends, and the general public, as well as for the members; and to form a library of reference material about books.

During the early years, excellent progress was made in meeting all the objectives. From 1899 to 1918, the Caxton Club maintained private club rooms in the heart of Chicago’s growing cultural community, on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. There members met, held exhibitions of books and prints from their personal and other collections, and browsed in the club library. An occasional luncheon was held in conjunction with the lectures that accompanied the opening of the exhibitions. In later years, financial difficulties forced the Club to forgo club rooms, regular exhibitions, and the library.

During World War I, membership declined and the Club almost disbanded. Through the action of a handful of dedicated members, the Club survived and eventually prospered. The revived Caxton Club focused on providing a monthly dinner for its members with a distinguished group of speakers on topics related to literature and the book arts. In 1936, after experimenting with a variety of locations, the organization began a long association with the Mid-Day Club in the First National Bank Building (now Chase Tower), where its dinner meetings were held through 2007. Currently dinner meetings are held on the third Wednesday of each month and luncheon meetings are held on the second Friday of each month at the Union League Club. Programs at the meetings reflect the purpose of the Club: ..."to promote the arts pertaining to books and to foster their appreciation." The programs reflect the wide variety of interests of our members. There are usually no meetings during July or August.

Throughout its first century, the Caxton Club remained dedicated to its primary objective of publishing books. Sixty books and one print bear the Caxton Club device. They include numerous titles on each of the following subjects—Americana, printing history, literature, bibliomania, and bookbinding—as well as individual publications on ancient history, art history, and even opera. With a few exceptions, they were published in limited editions for sale to the members. Many are of exceptional design and have become scarce in the antiquarian book market.

Originally it was exclusively a men’s club. Its first women were elected to membership in 1976. Currently comprising over twenty percent of the membership, women have assumed many leadership roles in the Club, including the presidency in 1985. The number of African-Americans in the Club is growing; and in 1995 Gwendolyn Brooks, the Illinois Poet Laureate, was the first Black to be elected to Honorary Membership. The total membership, which now exceeds three hundred resident and non-resident members, represents a diversified group of authors, binders, collectors, conservators, dealers, designers, editors, librarians, publishers, and scholars. The Caxton Club brings together a community of individuals who share a love of books and provides them a forum to learn about their history, production, and preservation; to heighten their appreciation of outstanding content, design and production; and to share in the joys of fine books.

Many interesting and articulate speakers have stepped up to the Caxton Club rostrum. To name a few: J. Christian Bay; historians Daniel J. Boorstin and Bruce Catton; and columnists Robert Cromie and Lloyd Wendt; in addition to Caxtonians Paul M. Angle, Elmer Gertz, Kenneth Nebenzahl, Ralph Newman, and many others. Topics have been diverse, enlightening, and often amusing. They range from The Folger Library and Its Treasures, Negro Historians of the 19th Century, and The Emergence of Modern Design in Chicago to Why Collect Books?—An Evening with Viscount Eccles, Eugene Field—Bard, Bibliophile and Bon-Vivant, and Literary Hoaxes and Forgeries.

In January 1995, the Caxton Club began an extended celebration of its centennial with a black-tie dinner at the Newberry Library, where several dignitaries spoke briefly, and where the Club’s new centennial history was distributed to subscribers. During the following months dinners were held at several historical locations, and invited speakers reviewed various aspects of the history of the book in Chicago. Twenty-two exhibits were also held at major private and university libraries in Chicago and its suburbs. To mark the celebration, Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed 1995 “The Year of the Book in Chicago.” Entering its second century, the Club renewed its dedication to publishing, and plans to produce a small book—distinguished for its content, design, and production values—at least every two or three years, and to produce a major publication every five to ten years.

Those interested in learning more about the history of the Caxton Club are referred to The Caxton Club 1895–1995—Celebrating A Century of the Book in Chicago, by Frank J. Piehl (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1995), available from Oak Knoll Books, 414 Delaware Street, New Castle, Delaware 19720.