April 12

Upon this day in 1870 in Salisbury, Maryland a compositor named Alexander W. Collins was born. He was destined to live but forty-eight years and achieved no great repute during his lifetime. His accomplishments were of an order which could not attract wide notice, but they did happen to receive the attention of a printing historian. Henry Lewis Bullen eulogized him in a short article which appeared in The Inland Printer, entitled “Only a Compositor.” It was Bullen’s hope that Collins would continue to live in the “hospitable pages” of that magazine.

“Only a compositor!” said Bullen. “Only a Gutenberg, a Caxton, a Bodoni, a William Morris, a De Vinne,—a noble company of compositors.” What attracted Bullen about Collins, career was his devotion to the craft of the printer as expressed in the writings of the great practitioners. Collins, called by his fellow-comps, “Hair-space Aleck” for his skill at the case, very early in his life became a collector of books about printing. He soon became so knowledgeable concerning these books that he became friendly, through correspondence, with America’s great scholar-printer, Theodore Low De Vinne.

Friendship with De Vinne prompted Collins to compile a very complete bibliography of the historian’s literary works. De Vinne regarded this as the greatest compliment ever paid to him. Collins set into type his researches and presented them to De Vinne as a Christmas gift in 1912. Bullen apparently couldn’t get over the skill evident in Collins’ work. He wrote, “All who know the difficulties of bibliographic research wonder at the thoroughness and completeness of his compilation, especially when the isolation of the compiler in the darkest wastes of Pittsburgh is considered.”

When Collins died, he left a library of beautifully printed books. It was exceeded only by two other private collections in the United States—those of De Vinne and Daniel Berkeley Updike, the Boston printer.

Bullen was greatly impressed by the breadth of interest shown by the library of the Pittsburgh compositor, stating, “When Bruce Rogers issued his beautiful and masterly translation of Bernard’s ‘Geoffrey Tory, painter and engraver, first royal printer, reformer of orthography and of typography under Francis I.; an account of his life and works,’ published in a limited edition of 300, price $35 per copy, only seven printers did themselves the honor to purchase it, and this learned compositor was one of them.”

Leave a Reply