Caxton exhibition focuses on the 'Fine-Press Movement' in Chicago

Kim Coventry


n January 15, 2003, the Caxton Club-organized exhibition, Inland Printers: The Fine-Press Movement in Chicago 1920-45, will open in the galleries of Columbia College Chicago Center for the Book & Paper Arts. The show, which includes more than 80 books and book-related materials, features Chicago’s preeminent local, private presses of the period.

A full-color, 45-page catalogue with more than 40 illustrations has been published in conjunction with the exhibition and will be distributed to those attending the opening event. The catalogue features the writing of 12 Caxtonians, including an introductory essay written by Paul F. Gehl.

The Caxton Club meeting in January is scheduled for the exhibition’s opening on January 15, 2003, which will take place at the Center for Book & Paper Arts (1104 South Wabash, 2nd floor). The evening will commence with a complementary wine reception and an exhibition viewing in the gallery, followed by a catered dinner and a lecture titled “Inland Printers: Big Shoulders for Small Presses,” by Paul F. Gehl, custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation, the Newberry Library. In addition, Caxtonian William Drendel, director of the center, has planned a special surprise.

The 45-page color exhibition catalogue will be available and the authors will be present for a signing. The reception and exhibition viewing will begin at 5 p.m., followed by the dinner and lecture. The exhibition will continue through March 21, 2003. The cost for the event is $45 and includes the wine reception, dinner, and a copy of the catalogue. For information, telephone: 312/255-3710 or e-mail: to make a reservation.

Published below is a preview of the exhibition, a condensed version of Paul Gehl’s introductory essay, and several sample pages from the catalogue are included in this issue of the Caxtonian.


Paul F. Gehl

This exhibition provides a glimpse of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s through the products of its small and fine presses. These rarities, collector’s items now just as they were when produced, portray a different “City of Big Shoulders” than the one we are used to seeing. The Chicago presented here aspired to be a printing capital, but it could not claim this distinction on the basis of its huge commercial printing sector alone; it had to participate in the international fine-press movement.

During this period, Chicago was home to the largest printing plants and longest print-runs in the nation. Tens of thousands of men and women worked in printing houses, binderies, engraving and typesetting shops, ad agencies, design studios, and paper warehouses. Magazines, directories, maps, railroad tickets and schedules, advertising mailers, encyclopedias, and literary reprints poured from throbbing rotary presses just south of the Loop along Printing House Row and, farther afield, from gargantuan plants constructed by Cuneo Press, W. H. Hall, and R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company.

The Chicago fine-press movement we celebrate here was, unlike the commercial printing industry, a tiny and fragmented enterprise: soft-spoken, deliberately non-competitive, downright leisurely. The “scene,” such as it was, comprised a few dozen individuals, almost all gainfully employed elsewhere in the printing and graphic-arts trades and laboring on their fine-press projects as a secondary profession or hobby. Only a few provided their proprietors with a real living wage. These marginal operations nevertheless reflected the anti-establishment tenor of Chicago literary culture.

In the 1930s, most Chicago private-press people embraced modernism, in typography as well as in literature. Unlike fine-press printers in other American cities, they did not specialize in classics or major American literary works; instead, they favored new poetry and prose. Some saw modernism as one among many design options for serving up a message; but for others modernity was the message. This last group of Chicagoans gave a warm welcome to those exiles who arrived in the city in large numbers in the mid-to-late 1930s and who founded the New Bauhaus here. The welcome they received from Chicago’s native modernists opened the next chapter in Chicago design history.

Inland Printers: The Fine-Press Movement in Chicago 1920-45 exhibition catalogue

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