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I’m a sucker for well-designed books—the paper, the printing, the typography, the illustration, the binding. Yum. Unfortunately, well-designed, well-printed, well-typeset books are the exception nowadays, not the rule.
I learned by watching the Antiques Roadshow that it became common practice in previous centuries for publishers of expensive books to sell them by subscription or in installments. This simultaneously allowed the collector to afford pricy volumes, and for the publisher to predict demand in advance of production. Good business model, but over time it became cheaper to produce books, so “well-enough” became the standard. (Not that I have anything against paperbacks, but a well-bound book is a work of art.)
So at some point, in stepped The Heritage Club, a subscription-based publisher of top-quality books.There’s not all that much information online about The Heritage Club. Wikipedia seems to be missing an entry about it altogether. But on this site I managed to learn a thing or two:
In 1929, [George Macy] founded the Limited Editions Club and began publishing fine illustrated books in limited numbers (1500 copies) for subscription members. In 1935, Macy extended his range, founding the Heritage Press for the creation and distribution of more affordable ‘semi-luxe’ books. Directors of the Heritage Press included Cedric Crowell, General Manager of the Doubleday Bookshops, Frank L. Magel, head of Putnam Bookstores in New York, and A. Koch, head of Brentano Stores in New York.
Macy published editions under several imprints. Heritage Press editions were sold through bookstores, while The Heritage Club, The Heritage Illustrated Bookshelf, and The Junior Heritage Club editions were sold by subscription only. These publishing enterprises were combined in 1944 as units of the George Macy Companies, Inc. Each imprint targeted a specific audience; George Macy was a master publicist and had excellent marketing skills.
Macy created the Heritage Club in 1937 in part to satisfy book lovers who weren’t able to afford to join the Limited Editions Club. By 1942, membership exceeded 9,200, and three of its selections, Lust for Life, Song of Songs, and Mother Goose, had each sold more than 20,000 copies in a single year. Circa 1938, these were the terms: The subscriber could either send a remittance for $2.50 plus wrapping and carrying charges for each book immediately upon its delivery or he could take a discount of ten percent and prepay $27.00 for a year’s subscription. Each month a new edition would be sent with only wrapping and carrying charges due on receipt.
The Heritage Press Illustrated Bookshelf operated in the same manner but was targeted at young adults and teenagers. These editions were not issued with the usual Sandglass newsletter or brochure but did have slipcases or dust jackets. The Junior Heritage Club, founded in 1943, was targeted at preteens, ages 5 to 12, and included The Monthly Magazine of The Junior Heritage Club. This booklet was approximately 16 pages and, like the Sandglass, discussed the accompanying edition, with information about the illustrator, designer, and author.
Macy’s accomplishments did not go unrecognized during his lifetime. In 1948, he received an honor never before accorded to a living publisher: A special exhibition of his books was held in the Salle d’Honneur of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. A second honor followed in England in 1952, when Macy became the first living publisher to be given a special exhibition of his books in the King’s Library of the British Museum in London. The President of France conferred him the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor as well, and the American Institute of Graphic Arts awarded him the 1953 AIGA Medal, its highest honor.
An advertising brochure from 1972 provides a good overview of the Heritage Press:
This is a Heritage Press book. As such, it is a class by itself. For 37 years the Heritage Press has been producing fine editions like this one. Every book selected by our editors is a classic in its field, chosen from the world’s best-known and most enduring literature.
Once a title is chosen, we employ the most creative designer, artists, typographers, printers and binders, who combine their talents to produce our fine editions. We believe that the resulting volumes are the only books of their quality available at their price level in the market today.
These collector’s volumes, beautifully slipcased, are priced no higher than the ordinary current work of fiction or non-fiction. By investing in them, you have not only benefited your own library but have also created a “reading trust” for generations to come.
So that’s about as much as I know. I came across these examples at my fiancée’s aunt’s house—they’d been sitting on the same bookshelf for many, many years, having been part of my fiancée’s grandparents’ collection back in the 1960s. Each of the books has its own protective slipcover, and while the slipcovers and the spines of the books have seen quite a lot of sun (as evidenced by severe fading), anything inside the cover was protected quite well against the elements. They’re in amazing condition otherwise; if any of these books were ever read, they were read with gloves on.
I borrowed as many as I could easily carry back to photograph, but there were more. The selection here includes:
- The Romance of Tristan & Iseult [Isolde, Yseult, etc.], as retold by Joseph Bédier, with an introduction by Padraic Colum and illustrations by Serge Ivanoff
- Zuleika Dobson (or An Oxford Love Story), by Max Beerbohm, with a preface by Douglas Cleverdon and illustrations by George Him
- The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, with a preface by the author and illustrations by Edy Legrand
- Tales of Mystery & Imagination, by Edgar Allan Poe, with an introduction by Vincent Starrett and photogravures of the original aquatints by William Sharp
- Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain, with an introduction by Edward Wagenknecht and illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton
- Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace, with an introduction by Ben Ray Redman and illustrations by Joe Mugnaini
- The Koran, Selected Suras, translated from the Arabic by Arthur Jeffery and decorated by Valenti Angelo
I also borrowed Typee, by Herman Melville, but it turns out this is a 1962 limited edition published by the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company, and not related to the Heritage Club.
There’s too much to comment on, but I hope that the photographs do the books justice.