John Henry Nash

Paul Elder was a bookseller and publisher, but he was not a printer. During the Elder & Shepard years, 1898-1903, printing was contracted out to three local firms: Charles Murdock (who printed The Lark for William Doxey), Stanley-Taylor Company, and the Twentieth Century Press. It was through Twentieth Century that Elder met John Henry Nash (1871-1947), a Canadian who had learned printing in Toronto and arrived in San Francisco in April 1895.

Elder had been dissatisfied with farming out his printing; he envisioned a printing plant in the same building as his store, enabling more control over both design and costs. In 1903, when Elder and Shepard dissolved their partnership, Elder approached Nash with his idea, and they agreed to join forces. Elder & Shepard became Paul Elder & Company, and the Twentieth Century Press became the Tomoye Press, owned by Elder but run by Nash.

The arranged marriage was a success, and Nash’s contribution to Elder’s publications was profound indeed. Almost all of Elder’s memorable and collectable works were designed and typeset by Nash (most of the actual printing, however, was still farmed out, mostly to Stanley-Taylor Company). Nash was a talented designer and an exceptional compositor and technician. His trademark was the mitred rule–the vertical and horizontal lines that appear in many of Elder’s books–which are quite tricky to set.

Nash was gregarious and opinionated, Elder quiet and reserved: two different men who, after the return from New York, clashed more and more often, usually over money. Elder spent generously on his bookstores, but Nash was given a tight budget for the Tomoye Press. In 1911 the two men had a rancorous falling out and Nash quit; they did not speak to each other for several years. In 1916 Nash began a long solo career as a fine printing specialist. Particularly noteworthy are a series of volumes commissioned by Nash’s wealthy patron William Andrews Clark, Jr.

Of Elder’s 400+ publications, only a few of them, such as the Western Classics series, could be called ‘fine printing’ in the mold of the Arts & Crafts book promoted by William Morris: the finest in paper, ink, typography, binding, illustration and literature. This didn’t bother Elder, since to publish fine printing exclusively was not his goal. Instead, he wanted to appeal to a broad range of customers by offering items at every price point.

Nash felt differently. His years with Elder convinced him that there was a market in San Francisco for fine printing, and he singlehandedly created both a local fine printing trade and the demand for it. His success attracted other notable printers to San Francisco, including Edwin & Robert Grabhorn and Alfred & Lawton Kennedy. That fine printing tradition has continued unbroken to this day.

Some have suggested that Nash’s contributions were the chief reason Elder’s books were popular, both then and now. However, a fairer view is that the Elder and Nash relationship was symbiotic. Elder needed Nash the designer and typographer, but Nash needed Elder the publisher and client. Elder wanted variety of all kinds, and gave Nash free rein to experiment. When Elder was willing to spend for quality, Nash rewarded him with fine results. Nash typically had not the same freedom of expression before joining Elder or in the first years after he left: those clients wanted less adventurous typography and design.

After a sensational 20-year run, John Henry Nash closed his San Francisco shop in 1938, a victim of the Great Depression. He then spent a few years at the University of Oregon as a lecturer with the School of Journalism. Nash retired in 1943 to his daughter’s home in Berkeley. During this time he called upon Elder and the two men reconciled their old differences. Nash died 24 May 1947 at the age of 76.

Further reading: John Henry Nash, The Biography of a Career, by Robert D. Harlan. University of California Press, 1970.

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