December 11, 2018 Hillacre Bookhouse: Fed Up With Fads, Wary of Cults, and Independent Enough
“At Riverside, Connecticut, between the road and the river, lies an acre of land, long and narrow and tilted up a little toward the west, so that the dwellers by the road at the top may look across the valley to the setting sun. Half way down the hillside stands a sunny stucco house built to shelter books, the makers of books, the types and presses and papers and inks wherewith they make the books. The men and women who make the books love the Bookhouse and the sunshine. The dwellers by the road at the top of the hill, the squirrels in their trees at the bottom and the birds that tend their garden midway, all love the Bookhouse and the sunshine. May you find the love and sunshine in the Hillacre Books!” — Hillacre Books ad in The Public, 1918
Who is Frederick Conrad Bursch and what led to the demise of his Literary Collector and Hillacre Presses? Certain mysteries of the past, such as these, often do not receive a full investigation. The books created by these presses get lost in catalogs and shelves only to spark curiosity among patrons many decades later. The story of Bursch remains unsolved, but hints of his legacy can still be found within the pages of his publications. According to Thomas A. Larremore’s essay, “An American Typographic Tragedy…” Bursch’s “name means little to most bibliophiles. Yet he is one of those ‘interesting Forgotten men of American typography’ gradually being rediscovered by persons ‘fed up’ with fads, wary of cults, and independent enough to venture off the currently conventional beaten track.”
From what we know, Frederick Bursch was born in 1874 to a wealthy German-American salt merchant in Brooklyn. By the late 19th century he had left his pursuit of a degree in Civil Engineering to study at the Library School of Pratt Institute, presumably under the guidance of two famous printers, Theodore L. De Vinne (De Vinne Press) and Frank E. Hopkins (Marion Press). It is likely that his typographic inspiration and philosophy first began here, and was later transmitted to his two Connecticut presses, The Literary Collector Press (1903 – 1906) and The Hillacre Bookhouse (1909 – 1919).
Of his typographic philosophy, Bursch once wrote,
“By fine printing we mean well-composed pages of unbroken type; make-up and format of unimpeachable taste; press-work of even color; exact register and perfect impression; and last, the choice of such paper, illustrations, decoration and rubrication as best suit the style of the work and go to making up a finely printed book.
We do not by any means disparage the use of colors and decorations but we emphasize the fact that they do not take the place of excellence in typography and press-work. The Literary Collector follows no fads but aims at perfection in taste and execution.”
- From The Literary Collector Advertiser, vii, in The Literary Collector Magazine (Greenwich, Connecticut, and New York, New York, 1904, Vol. IX (November – December, 1904)
In 1901 Bursch became the editor of what was known as The Literary Collector Magazine, described as “a monthly magazine of booklore and bibliography.” By 1903, he had relocated to Connecticut and decided to cut ties with the Mills Printing Company in order to start his own printing press under the moniker, The Literary Collector Press. In addition to the fulfillment of monthly subscriptions, Bursch began the publication of imprints such as Early American Plays, 1714-1830 and Bookbinding for Bibliophiles. These books belonged to what he called “the second class, apparently selected by Burch himself from printing and publication,” and provided “the tip-off to the real character of the Press, as Bursch conceived it, as to his own contemporary taste. Mostly they were reprints of standard literary texts, or represented special bibliographic material, dressed up in attractive formats and clean-cut, crisp typography; on good paper (with handmade paper, or Japanese, employed frequently); and turned out in small, limited editions.”
The life of The Literary Collector was cut short, perhaps due to financial troubles or lack of commercial competence. “In 1905 the Magazine, resplendent in its beautiful, final format, with price raised to $2.00 per year, seems to have been running smoothly – never more attractive to the eye or interesting to the reader. Yet, with the issue for September, it just stopped – apparently without even advising subscribers – with only three numbers of Volume 10 published.” It would take at least four years for Bursch to get back on his feet, likely with the help of his father, and start a new press that was developed more specifically for limited edition runs and imprints of his choosing. After moving to a small one-acre property on a hill in Riverside, The Hillacre Bookhouse was born. Print runs ranged from about 100 to 500 copies.
Information about the Hillacre Bookhouse is scarce, as documents and imprints from this time were destroyed or lost. What remains are a few known titles from authors such as Olive Schriener, Frank R. Stockon, Edwin L. Godkin, Leon Pierce Clark, Arturo Gionvanniti and Lincoln Steffens. Steffens became a close friend and companion of Bursch, and the two often enjoyed long walks and sailing trips. After publishing some of Steffens’ work, Steffens introduced Bursch to other poets, including fellow-Harvard alum John Reed — American journalist, poet, and socialist activist, best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed’s poetry at this time was flourishing and, unlike his later work, was not radical in tone or content. The Hillacre Bookhouse went on to publish five items by Reed: two broadsides and three books of poetry. Rare Books has four of the five publications in its collections.
The relationship between Reed and Bursch extended beyond the business arrangements of author and publisher. They became good friends and carried on a correspondence through 1919, only a year before Reed’s death in the newly formed Soviet Union.
John Reed: The Early Years in Greenwich Village
New York: Archives of Social History, 1990
HX84 R4 B28 1990, Level 2
~~Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Assistant