March 14

The Newberry Library & Washington Square Park, Chicago.

John Mansir Wing, compositor, editor, and bibliophile, died on this day in 1917 in the city of Chicago, leaving all of his earthly possessions to the Newberry Library of that city. Born in New York’s Oswego County in 1845, Wing served an apprenticeship at the type case at an early age and worked as a compositor in the newspaper offices in Rome and Utica. By the age of twenty he had become a proofreader and editorial writer. It was in this capacity that he journeyed to Chicago to work for the Chicago Times, where he remained for nine years.

Following a world tour as tutor to the son of an editor of the Boston Herald, Wing shrewdly took advantage of the expanding real estate market then existing in Chicago by founding a trade journal named the Land Owner. It became an immediate success, even surviving the great fire of 1871, although Wing had to go to New York to buy new equipment to keep his journal in operation. He made his next venture in trade periodicals with the Western Brewer which—along with the Land Owner—enabled its publisher to retire from business at the comparatively early age of 43 to devote his life to his one great interest, the collection of books.

This avocation eventually led to an agreement with the Newberry Library by which Wing was to leave his property to the library for the establishment of a collection to be known as the John M. Wing Foundation. The trustees of the library agreed to provide a room in which Wing could work with his books and pursue what had become a passion with him—the extra-illustrating of books. Since he was a bachelor, this arrangement was a most practical one for the library in addition to being pleasant for its benefactor.

In his will, the former compositor directed that the income from his bequest be used to purchase books which treat of “the history and development of the arts of printing, engraving and book illustration from the date of the introduction into Europe of the art of printing with type.” In 1920 the first custodian of the Wing Foundation was appointed. He was Pierce Butler, a bibliographic scholar of considerable attainments, who immediately laid out the guide lines which have been followed quite closely by his successors ever since.

In a memorandum which Dr. Butler prepared, outlining his ideas, he stated: “In its particular field of the typographic arts, the John M. Wing Foundation should be what the Newberry Library is in the broader realm of general culture. Concerning itself with the humanities of typography, this Foundation will avoid on the one hand the empirical limitation of the artisan and on the other the finical niceties of the dilettante, to devote itself wholeheartedly to the accumulation of such things as will instruct, correct and inspire the makers and users of books in the higher aspects of typographic arts. Loyalty to this ideal will require no austere refusal to receive into the collection treatises on mechanical processes or curiosities. These will have their place, but they must be acquired and used with a frank recognition of their subordination to other and higher matters.”

Butler immediately began to acquire incunabula. His successor, Ernst Detterer, was probably more interested in the aesthetic qualities of his purchases than in their content. The present policy, under the direction of James Wells, now is to obtain works which will provide a solid background for the serious study of the history of printing. For a number of years the Wing Foundation has enjoyed the scholarly counsel of Stanley Morison, the foremost living typographic historian. There are now over 20,000 volumes in the collection, making it one of the truly important collections of its kind in existence. While new acquisitions are becoming more difficult to locate, the library manages to add some 300 new items each year.

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