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.