December 8

A professor of English achieved on this day in 1920 a certain kind of immortality not usual to his profession. He read a paper before the Fortnightly Club of Rochester, New York, which bore the title, Printing and the Renaissance. John Rothwell Slater was of course not an ordinary English professor as the content of this paper readily attests. In addition to possessing a sympathetic understanding of printing history, he had acquired the friendship of an outstanding practitioner of the craft, a fellow Rochesterian named Elmer Adler, who in turn counted among his friends a typographer named Bruce Rogers.

The end result of this circle of circumstances was a limited edition of Printing and the Renaissance, designed by Rogers and printed by his friend, William Edwin Rudge. With five hundred copies printed from Caslon type on antique wove paper, plus one hundred on French hand-made paper, Professor Slater was destined to appear in all of the BR bibliographies and exhibitions. All of this added up to Slater’s real contribution to typographic scholarship, which might otherwise have been lost forever. George Bernard Shaw once remarked to a fellow scrivener that if an author was to be remembered it would no doubt be through the medium of his printer. Shaw trusted no typographer to provide this particular brand of immortality, so he designed all of his books himself.

Dr. John R. Slater, however, had no need of the assistance of a printer to be long remembered. A member of the faculty of the University of Rochester from 1905 to his retirement in 1942, he served the school as its most distinguished professor emeritus until his death at the age of ninety-three in 1965. During most of this period he was the most admired teacher at the university, respected for his breadth of learning in the world of books and for his ability to inspire his students. The doors of the Rush Rhees Library on the college campus bear an inscription written by John Slater: “Here is the history of human ignorance, error, superstition and folly, war and waste recorded by human intelligence for the admonition of wiser ages yet to come. Here also is the history of man’s hunger for truth, goodness and beauty which leads him slowly upward through flesh to spirit, from bondage to freedom and from war to peace!’

In his Fortnightly Club paper, Dr. Slater paid tribute to the Renaissance printers, saying in part:

“An age full of contradictions and strange delusions, but an age of great vitality, great eagerness, great industry, patience, foresight, imagination. And in such an age it was the good fortune of these wise craftsmen who handled so deftly their paper and type to be the instruments of more evangels than angels ever sang, more revolutions than gunpowder ever achieved, more victories than ever won the applause of men or the approval of heaven. In the beginning the creative word was Fiat lux—let there be light. In the new creation of the human mind it was Imprimatur—let it be printed.”


  1. Marlis Eleanor Slater says:

    My name is Marlis Eleanor Slater. Professor John Rothwell Slater is my great-grandfather. I was born in 1973 and never had the opportunity to meet him. However, my late-father, his grandson, was particularly close to him. I have a number of personal items that Grandfather Slater carved, wrote and shared with my father. I particularly love a treasure chest that was made for my father and which I expect, one day, to pass on to my children.

    I lost my parents at a tender age. Many years later I’m trying to understand myself. Part of this process means digging a bit deeper, and learning–not only about my mother and father, but also of their history.

    Generally I know quit a bit about my great-grandfather’s childhood, upbringing and professional accomplishments.

    I would be very grateful to know more about how the legacy of J.R.S. at the University of Rochester, as well as ways in which it might be carried out and celebrated on campus today.

    Having lost my father when I was 13, I appreciate your generous help in piecing together the basics of my family history. With any luck, when the day comes to share my great-grandfather’s gifts with my own sons (now 9 and 11), they will find themselves closer to my father– the grandfather they never knew; and also to their grandfather’s grandfather, who clearly recognized that in understanding one’s self, we must first be willing to celebrate the stories of others.

    Thank You,

    Marlis Slater
    Laramie, Wyoming

  2. Dear Marlis

    Thank you for your comment. I will pass your message along to a colleague at the University of Rochester who will be better able to address your query.

    I appreciate your search for your history more than you know. For those of us without any such family history, we have to assemble some such thing around us. And this blog is in some sense a part of that very process for me.

    Thank you again and please let me know if I might ever be of assistance to you in any way, typographic or otherwise.


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