How the Press went from a printer to a publisher, all with the help of the “Press Gang.”
One year after the founding of Stanford University, an enterprising printer from the Pioneer Class set up a campus print shop and began running university publications and odd jobs off of his second-hand press—equipment that he purchased with crowd sourced funds from the Stanford faculty. This humble print shop, started by Julius Quelle and encouraged along by Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, would become the forerunner of today’s Stanford University Press, now celebrating its 125th year of publishing. While Quelle’s shop produced one of the earliest books in the Press’s history—and the first to bear the Press imprint as it appears today—it was not until 1915, when Quelle hired a talented bookbinder from Leipzig, that his modest press had the capability to publish and masterfully bind lengthier books of Stanford faculty and affiliates. That bookbinder, along with a master pressman, a part-time English professor, and another university president, would inaugurate a new and ambitious era in the Press’s history.
These industrious individuals—the “Press Gang”—would put Stanford University Press on the map with verve and diligence.
The bookbinder in question was John Borsdamm, a name that still rings bells in bookmaking and book arts circles today, whose works can be found in the White House Library (not to mention myriad private collections) and by whose hands or under whose direct supervision each Stanford book was bound for thirty-five years. Borsdamm would serve perhaps one of the longest tenures in Press history and see it through one of its most transformational periods, forming a link between its early days as a small job shop under the stewardship of Quelle and its later incarnation as a fully staffed, well-oiled publisher. For it was only a year after Borsdamm was hired that a new president came to the helm at Stanford: Ray Lyman Wilbur. Early on in his post as president, Wilbur penned a letter to his business manager avowing that, “the wisest thing we could do about our printing is to buy out the University Press.” Accordingly, in 1917 the Board of Trustees offered Quelle just shy of ten thousand dollars for his press and its equipment; Quelle took the deal and returned to New York where he continued working as a pressman. Borsdamm, meanwhile, stayed on with the press, which, now under university management, was rehoused in a new, larger facility to which Quelle’s equipment was moved, there to be joined by a new fleet of linotype machines, a Miehle Press, and, of course, new bindery equipment for book production.
With the development of new printing facilities, it was President Wilbur’s hope that the university would not only save money on printing, but also be able to produce works with a “unity and standard quality” that was unattainable when working with external and sometimes far-distant printers. In this regard, Wilbur had a champion in Borsdamm, whose colleagues would later credit him with putting the stamp of guild craftsmanship on Stanford books, and whose artistry attracted other dedicated craftspeople to the Press. Among those drawn in by the much respected bookbinder was Will A. Friend, the master printer who would steward Stanford University Press through two busy and aspirational decades.
By the time of Friend’s arrival, the Press had already exhausted four managers including “a man named Aumack, whose regime lasted only two weeks” and “one J. Ellis Howston, a colorful individual who had formerly been a sheriff.” Friend, who came to the Press by way of a San Francisco printer, was a formidable craftsman in his own right, described by one of his colleagues as “a book man who caught the spirit of a university press,” and was no doubt a welcome addition to the nascent outfit. Not afraid to burn the midnight oil, Friend spent the first few years of his time as press manager preparing copy and editing layouts himself all while recruiting and readying his small staff to transform the university’s printing operation into a versatile press and bona fide book publisher. From the time of his arrival in 1920, he built up a veritable guild of able designers, typists, proofreaders, and printers, seeking out the best talent he could find. These industrious individuals—the “Press Gang”—would put Stanford University Press on the map with verve and diligence, earning the Press the distinction of being a publisher of exceptionally well-made books.
To this coterie of craftspeople were added dedicated editorial and sales staff. William Hawley Davis, Professor of English, became the first-ever editor at the press, balancing his publishing duties with a half-time teaching schedule at Stanford. In his mission to hunt down and acquire “salable books” for the Press, he was supported in part by a Special Committee consisting of himself, the press manager, the sales manager, and the comptroller. President Wilbur, in a 1927 letter that established this Special Committee, encouraged its members to interpret the Press’s functions broadly: “As I view it,” he wrote, “[the Press’s] principal object is to serve in the publication of University publications of all sorts and to promote human welfare generally.” During Davis’s twenty-five years as general editor, the Press comprehended a great deal in this remit, publishing in a wide array of fields and formats, from the natural sciences to the social sciences, from mathematics to literature and languages, from pamphlets to multi-volume tomes.
By the 1920s, the Press had begun regularly publishing catalogs of its rapidly multiplying and sundry titles. Bound versions of these issues can still be found in the Press’s library today, each one bearing an insignia on the reverse side of the front cover with the then newly minted Press colophon and its winking subtitle: “Take my money but leave my book.” A Foreword to the 1928 catalog explains the wide diversity of its book list, noting that, “the interests of the Press are as varied as those of the University” and that through these volumes, “the voice of Stanford reaches beyond the campus, beyond the state, beyond the nation, as human knowledge outruns geography.” Geography was, in fact, one of the Press’s publishing areas, though not one of its emphases—that distinction went to the humanities, especially literature, as the most ubiquitous in the Press’s early publishing program, followed by a robust showing in the social sciences, and an unusually prolific representation for a university press in biological sciences. A smattering of texts in physics, chemistry, and mathematics rounded out the list. In the first Press catalog, issued in 1926, echoes of President Wilbur’s mandate to the Press can be found in its pages, where the unifying maxim of its diverse list was laid bare: “These books […] conform always to the broad University ideal of promoting human welfare.”
By the time Friend, Davis, and Borsdamm retired from their respective posts around the midcentury, the Press they left behind looked quite different from the humble printing plant they had inherited from Quelle. In addition to continuing to serve the miscellaneous needs of the university as the campus printer, the Press was also now a publisher of some renown, a founding member of the Association of American University Presses, routinely lauded for its artistry and the physical quality of its books, and honored several times over by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The imprimatur of Stanford University Press had gained national recognition both for the intellectual rigor of the work the house published as well as for the careful craftsmanship that went into each book produced therein.