One year from now AAS will be opening the exhibition Radiant with Color and Light: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858-1920 at the Grolier Club in New York. The show will feature nearly two hundred books, games, watercolors, toys, and ephemera, all produced by the McLoughlin Bros. firm and their contemporaries. The Society’s curators and conservators have been hard at work planning the show since 2013 and, in recent weeks, have begun to lay out the installation in preparation for the construction of book cradles, mattes, frames, and other display elements, as well as the writing of exhibition labels, all work that is slated for early 2017.
This month, appropriately, we decided to focus on a section of the show devoted to Christmas. McLoughlin Bros. are well known for hiring American illustrator Thomas Nast to create images for the popular poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas), which was issued in multiple editions starting around 1869. After 1870, the firm was very invested in the holiday, issuing numerous books and toys focused on Christmas, Santa, and winter activities, all intended to tempt children and parents into purchasing McLoughlin products for Christmas and New Year’s gift giving. During the object selection process last year, Children’s Literature Curator Laura Wasowicz and I pulled dozens of examples of holiday books offered by the firm, with titles ranging in date from 1863 to 1927.
We were looking for outstanding examples to feature at the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles passionate about fine bindings, rare books, book history, and book production. We laid all the volumes out on our work table and both of us were struck by a unifying characteristic shared by the holiday titles. They had been, in the words of the curator, “very nearly read to death.” Heavily dog-eared, creased, soiled, stained, and torn, the books were often actually limp from overuse. One tattered copy of the 1869 title Santa Claus and His Works, for example, had been sewn, taped, and glued by previous owners in an attempt to keep the pages together (fortunately, we also have a pristine copy). Overall though, the holiday books showed more wear and tear than any of the other 150 titles that we had examined for other sections of the show. What to do? Could they travel? Would we be embarrassed to show them in the august halls of the Grolier Club?
As with many problems, this one was solved with a compromise. Any title too damaged to travel or be displayed was rejected out of hand (although some will be photographed for the catalog that will accompany the exhibition). Then we met with our head conservator and explained that we wanted to show the wear on these books in order to allow them to represent the popularity of the titles with their young readers. She agreed and we worked together to isolate those well-loved titles with the most structural integrity. In the end, we selected fourteen books and games for the Christmas section and feel confident that they will reflect well on both the McLoughlin Bros. and on AAS, while also providing indisputable evidence of repeated and enthusiastic readings by excited children. We’ll have more updates about the progress of the McLoughlin exhibition as we move forward in the months ahead.