Seeing The Grolier Club Was Like Landing On 63

If I were as adventurous as my friends Elkin and Judy, one thing would make me consider moving to New York City — being able to attend Royal Oak Foundation programs held at some of the city’s best cultural institutions.

This spring, this partner of the National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is offering 15 programs for New Yorkers to learn about historically and naturally significant places throughout the United Kingdom. For example, if I were in the city on May 23, I’d be first in line at Bonhams to hear the Duchess of Rutland present “Capability Brown and Belvoir Castle: Discovering a Lost Landscape,” a program about the famed 18th-century landscape designer’s plans for Belvoir’s garden that were recently discovered hidden in the castle’s archives.

Grolier ClubIn previous years, programs on the Art Deco in Britain and Kim Wilson’s At Home with Jane Austen have been held at a tantalizing place called the Grolier Club. I might have missed those lectures, but I was determined to see this landmark of the rare book world for myself.

In 1884, nine New York bibliophiles founded a club devoted to the book arts through studying, collecting and appreciating the art, history, production and business of books. They christened the club after Jean Grolier de Servières (1489-1565), treasurer of France, who began amassing a library during his tenure as ambassador to the court of Rome. Grolier selected the best copies of different works, sometimes having several copies of a book printed especially for him with colored frontispieces, fine bindings and covers featuring gilded ornaments that he designed. Grolier bindings can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, private collections and of course, the Grolier Club.

Originally located on Madison Avenue, the club moved first to East 32nd Street in 1890, then in 1917 to its present location, a six-story Georgian-style townhouse on East 60th Street in Midtown Manhattan.  Today, the Grolier is the oldest existing bibliophilic club in North America, with about 800 members, all who have been nominated for membership on the basis of their accomplishments as collectors, scholars, librarians, printers or in some other “bookish pursuit.”

Open only to members, the club’s library contains 100,000 volumes about the book arts, from histories of printing to a teaching collection of illuminated manuscripts and private press books. Its core is a 60,000-volume reference collection of bookseller and book auction catalogues spanning four centuries, a treasure trove for research on the antiquarian book trade and book collecting.

Occasionally, tGrolier Clubhe club publishes books that describe and promote the book arts. It is best known for its “Grolier Hundred” catalogues, bibliographical roundups of 100 important books on specific topics. More frequently, it sponsors four exhibitions a year on topics like modern fine presses and Victorian publishers’ bookbindings, all open to the public free of charge. Two of those exhibitions were on display during my visit.

In honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert presents designer bindings of miniature editions of plays, sonnets, and books inspired by Shakespeare. On view through May 28, the exhibition includes almost 100 miniature books, all no more than three inches tall. 

Sonnet Truck, Grolier ClubContemporary artists were commissioned to create bindings for miniature versions of several Shakespearean plays, such as The Tempest; King Henry IV, Part I; King Lear; The Comedy of Errors; Macbeth; King Henry VI, Parts II and III; and Hamlet.

Miniature Shakespeare binding, Grolier Club

My favorite was a binding for Cassal & Co.’s 1906 edition of Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden featuring beautiful needlework.

Miniature Shakespeare binding, Grolier Club

Another exhibition features more than 70 different versions of The Royal Game of the Goose, one of the earliest printed board games, on view through May 14. Players roll the dice and move along a spiral track, hoping to land like a lucky goose on the winning space numbered 63 and avoid “death” by landing on space 58.

Beside the Broad Ocean (circa 1890) includes charming illustrations of the bathing machines and Punch and Judy shows that were characteristic of the Victorian seaside.

Board game, Grolier Club

Visitors can try their hands at playing the Mansion of Happiness, the first board game published in the United States, in 1843, and its British predecessor. Players race around the game track, hoping to land on virtuous spaces like “Honesty” and “Temperance” and bypass spaces like “Poverty” and “Perjury” in their quest to be the first player to reach the Mansion of Happiness, the result of virtuous Christian living, in the center of the board.

Board game, Grolier Club

By the 1880s, board games celebrated materialism rather than morality, with the most competitive players being the most successful ones. The Game of the Errand Boy (1891) tests how well players can rise through the ranks from humble messenger boy to successful bank president.Board game, Grolier Club

Jules Verne, author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days, loved to play The Game of the Goose with his uncle. In 1898, that inspired him to write The Will of an Eccentric, a serialized adventure story in which people compete for a Chicago millionaire’s fortune.  To win the prize, the players had to visit places across the United States by moving across a game board that represented a map of the country. The Noble Game of the United States was the board game developed to accompany the book.

By a very lucky coincidence, Verne’s book and game were the subjects of “Cast Aside into the Public Domain: The Resurrection of an Esoteric Jules Verne Adventure Novel,” an April 7 webinar sponsored by the Northern Ohio regional chapter of the Association for Information Science and Technology. Jared Bendis, the creative new media officer for Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library and game designer for the Cleveland Museum of Art, described how he resurrected this out-of-print rare book by making a derivative copy of it. Now, he’s working on a board game based on The Noble Game of the United States; two different versions of the game will be released.

Grolier Club bookplate, from the cover of the Spring 1985 issue of The Journal of Library HistoryThe Grolier Club’s 1894 copperplate-engraved bookplate was featured on the cover of the Spring 1985 issue of The Journal of Library History; an article by Robert Nikerk, librarian of the Grolier Club at the time, describes it on pages 196-199. Measuring just over 5 by 2 inches, the elaborate Baroque design is packed with iconography like Grolier bindings; Grolier’s coat of arms; a miniature version of Grolier in the House of Aldus, a painting that still hangs in the club; and book arts-related scenes adapted from woodcuts depicting the papermaker, printer, designer and binder in Jost Amman’s 1568 Book of Trades.

For more on games, see The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board & Table Games, by Margaret K. Hofer, featuring examples of historic board and table games from the New-York Historical Society’s Liman Collection. “Curious Bible Questions: Discovering Connections in Special Collections,” my article in the Summer 2009 issue of AASLH History News, describes how an 1868 card game that presented a six-question lesson taught religion and helped players com­mit scriptural passages to mem­ory.

Click here to play an online version of Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates, a game that Twain designed and patented in 1885 to help people keep historical facts straight.

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