November 21

Under the enthusiastic direction of the Chicago members of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the “Fifty Books of 1923” Exhibition opened on this date at the Newberry Library. Excitement was generated by the idea of selecting fifty books out of the thousands published, as being outstanding examples of the printer’s craft. A receptive audience was attracted by the poster produced by the inimitable hand of Oz Cooper.

The Catalogue of the Exhibition appeared as a supplement to the AIGA News-Letter in August, 1923, for the original showing in New York. In it an attempt was made to explain the need for such an exhibition: “Exactly what progress is being made in the United States in the direction of better printing and better bookmaking? In view of the conflicting opinions of experts, varying all the way from scathing rebuke to enthusiastic flattery, how can the men who are doing the work be sure whether their progress is slow or fast—or even whether it is backward rather than forward?

“The American Institute of Graphic Arts has long desired to render some aid in securing an answer to the query. It believes that the nearest approach to a specific answer will come through the adoption of some definite measure or ‘yardstick’ which can be applied at regular, stated intervals and in the presence of those most concerned. This belief has taken concrete form in the present exhibition. . . . Neither this first exhibition nor its successors will make any pretension of showing the fifty ‘best’ examples. The effort, rather, will be to show fifty representative books, as widely representative as possible of the various problems of printing and bookmaking and of the excellent work being done in different sections of the United States in successfully meeting these problems.”

Forty-four years and 2,200 books later this statement is still essentially correct in most of its details. During this period the “Fifty” has been loudly praised and just as loudly damned, depending upon the viewpoint of the critical observer. While many of the selections may thankfully be forgotten, the list is assuredly “representative” of the best in American bookmaking in our time.

It is interesting to observe the typography of the books which were selected by the first jury of the “Fifty” and to compare it with the more recent selections. In 1923 Messrs. David Silve, W. Arthur Cole, and Burton Emmett chose twenty-two hand-set books and twenty-eight machine-set books. A number of the types used are seen rarely today, such as French Oldstyle, Suburban French, Franklin, Inkunabula, Walpole Italic, etc. In fact, of all the types used, only Caslon, Bodoni, and Garamond are likely candidates for present-day inclusion in the exhibition. And of course hand-set books are now quite infrequent.

In one category, the 1923 group was unique, and that was in the choice of paper. Twenty books were printed upon hand-made paper, even more unusual today than the hand-setting of books, except in private press printing. Both of these now singular practices were considered to be quite common in good book-making a half century ago.

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