[ModLib] Letterpress and Offset in Modern Library Texts and Jackets

Roger Lathbury lathbury at gmu.edu
Sun Apr 10 13:17:22 EDT 2011

Although not a collector like others on this list serve, I own, for the sake of reading, a number of Modern Library books. I note that the trend toward printing the books is from letterpress (hot type, with raised and incuse areas on the plates) to offset (cold type, planographic):

1. The text of all earlier books--up to roughly the mid 1960's--is printed letterpress. Plates were rented from the original publishers and re-imposed on the press for the Modern Library size and format. There may be some illustrated books, especially ones with colored pictures, that use offset lithography.

2. The text of later books is printed offset. You can recognize offset paper by its smoother, whiter, glossier surface. Offset presses, in which rubber rollers transfer images to the surface of the printed sheet, cannot use paper with fibers that detach and stick to the those rollers in printing. Even fibrous papers that have been calendered (pressed between heavy steel rollers) to tamp down the surface do not readily accommodate offset use.

Sometimes a ML letterpress book (e. g., _The Poorhouse Fair_ and _Rabbit, Run_; _V_; _Catch-22_) was photographed and reduced so as to fit the smaller size ML page. The plates of the original were too large for use in the ML size. Note that some earlier ML books printed from the original plates have almost offensively tight margins--e. g., _The Great Gatsby._

3. As long as appropriately dimensioned plates were serviceable (a flexible criterion) letterpress plates were used. As late as 1984 plates from four score years earlier were still being printed (_Sister Carrie_), although the type batter and the illegibility of some text would seem to have called for abandonment. However, up until the 1960's the Modern Library was pretty exclusively (though not solely) a reprinting operation; so the expense of new plates was always avoided if possible.

My copy of _A Hazard of New Fortunes_ was printed (letterpress) from the plates of the original two volume 1890 Harper edition, without effort to make the page numbers continuous after volume 1. Some early Boni Modern Library books may have been set expressly for the Modern Library. I don't know.

Offset plates are cheaper to make than letterpress ones. This economy meant that arrangements between the original publisher and the Modern Library increasingly became a contractual right that need not necessarily involve the rental of original plates as it did (for instance) with some of the 1930-1960 books--_The Maltese Falcon_ or _Selected Short Stories of Eudora Welty_.


4. As far as jackets go, the rectos of the earlier jackets, especially the typographic ones, were printed letterpress.

5. The versos of the earlier jackets ("Which of these 5,000,000 outstanding titles do you own?") were printed letterpress.

6. The change-over from letterpress to offset jackets looks to me to have occurred around 1965 or so. My _Anna Karenina,_ an offset production for both text and jacket, is dated "September 1965" (first Modern Library edition). The back of the jacket is blank, but the jacket style is not one of those ones with a colored line border and the "ml" logo. 

However, _Nine Stories,_ for which text plates were rented, has a letterpress jacket. I had a copy, since given away, that was bought in the mid 1960's and was a letterpress production. This tells me that stock of both letterpress and offset books was offered simultaneously.

Offset plates are easier to edit or refashion than letterpress, yet I have seen no jacket that looks to me printed offset one side and letterpress on the other. Has anyone? All of the two-sided jackets I have seen look to me to be entirely letterpress productions. I do not have, in order examine them, the thousands of books that this group has.

As long as jackets were roughly of the same dimensions, it might seem to make economic sense to print the versos many jackets, destined for different rectos (titles), at the same time and then to use those jackets for different rectos; however, this would entail rather much in the way of planning with printers, and I doubt that it was done. Such a decision could have been made also independently of the orders of Random House and would not be traceable in Random's records because printing contracts almost always leave the means of production up to the printer and not the publisher.

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