Great Literature for the Everyman

The Mill – literary magazine at The University of Toledo. Spring 2015. Best Non Fiction winner.


It was a four volume, hardbound, 1980 edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night that started my love affair with The Folio Society. I was around eight when the bond formed and to this day, it is my longest standing amour. The books themselves are a photo-litho reprint of the original 1958 ‘Folio Press’ letterpress edition, and stand today where they stood all those years ago, on my parents’ living-room bookshelves. I am not sure if it was the thrilling tale of Scherazade who held off her impending execution by weaving story after story to her betrothed King Shahyra that held the magic of this book for me, or perhaps it was the gold gilt lettering on each spine as they sat snug in their communal slipcase that appealed to my girlish magpie tendencies. I suspect it was more to do with it being one of only a few books in the house that I wasn’t allowed to read at the breakfast table with fingers coated in sticky jam. In fact, a hand washing ritual vigorous enough to rival that of any surgeon had to be undertaken before we could handle the precious volumes.

Our family’s first purchase from the Folio Society came in 1971 when my mother bought herself The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. At the time she was a young newly wed, not long out of college, living and working as a school teacher in London. After reading the Merlin novels by Mary Stewart she was inspired to track down one of Stewart’s sources, Geoffrey’s text. In many ways, my mother was exactly the customer The Folio Society was created for. The societies founder, Charles Ede, stated with his visionary mission statement that the organization would produce “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman.” It was a mission dreamt up in the early 1940s and one that the Society holds firm today, over 65 years later.

Charles Ede (1921 – 2002) was introduced to the art of publishing at school when one of his teachers showed him the works of the Kelmscott Press, a private press based in Hammersmith that produced books between 1891 and 1898. When WWII began in 1939, Ede abandoned his original post-school plan to attend the University of Oxford and joined the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver. His wartime was spent in France and then Malta, where he was caught up in a siege and put in command of a troop of light tanks, only being evacuated by submarine in 1942. After being demobbed he enrolled at the London College of Printing as Ede had became an avid collector of books produced by the first press he fell in love with, the Kelmscott Press, and two other contemporary private presses; the Golden Cockerel Press (1920 – 1961), and Nonesuch (1922 – mid 1960s).

It was after he left the college that he joined forces with two gentlemen from the publishing world that had far more experience in running presses, Alan Bott and Christopher Sandford, to create the Folio Society. Captain Alan Bott (1893 – 1952) was a renowned pilot in WWI who previously had founded two presses before later became a published author under a pseudonym. Whereas, Christopher Sandford (1902 – 1983) was a book designer and proprietor of the Golden Cockerel Press from 1933 – 1959. The Golden Cockerel Press was known for its handmade limited editions of classical works of the highest standards with hand-set type, handmade paper, and original illustrations.

The first volume that went on sale from the Folio Society in October 1947 was an edition of Tolstoy’s Tales – bound with a black spine and scarlet sides. The text sold for sixteen shillings, which equates to just over $10.00USD today. By the end of the year an edition of George du Maurier’s, Trilby, and then the medieval tale, Aucassin and Nicolette followed. In 1947 post-war rationing was still in force but as an ex-serviceman Ede was given a ‘generous’ allotment of 10 tons of paper. However, this was only enough for about five books. Ede reached out to small local printers with sufficient stocks of paper to overcome the shortages.

In the beginning there was resistance within the publishing world to the idea of “a poor man’s fine edition” but by undertaking an independent advertising campaign to enroll ‘members’ the Society started to gain financial stability. From the outset the Folio Society has functioned as a ‘club’ in which the reader is enticed to pay for a membership by salacious introductory offers, such as five cloth-bound volumes of classic fairly tales with original illustrations, worth over $300 for merely $15. This strategy has paid dividends with current international membership of over 120,000 people.

During his reign, Ede was intimately involved all aspects of production including; selecting the texts, supervising all design aspects, detailing the printing process, and working with artists for the original illustrations. Initially Ede concentrated on classic fiction, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde but came to understand that his members had an appetite for little-known historical documents like the trial of Joan of Arc. To this day the huge catalogue of texts available from the Society is wide reaching from Sun-tzu’s 2,500 year old The Art of War, to Thomas Jefferson’s An Expression of the American Mind, to The Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening and so on.

The Society continued to grow until in 1971 Ede realized that it was too large for him to remain as involved as he wished and so the company was incorporated and sold to John Letts and Halfdan Lynner, under whose ownership the collected novels of Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Conrad were published. Since 1982 Lord Bob Gavron CBE has been the chairman of the Society. Born in 1930 Gavron is a printing millionaire, philanthropist and a Life Peer of the Labour party. After an education at the University of Oxford he first became a barrister before founding the St. Ives Publishing Group in 1964 and at then, age of 74, was elected the deputy Mayor of London.

Gavron’s complete adoration for books influences the way he steers the Folio Society. Although the company turns over a small annual profit he insists that the money go back into the company to better production quality or, is donated to charity. The Societies purpose is to offer beautiful books at an affordable price tag, but cheap production is not part of Folio’s vocabulary. Technological advances have allowed the Folio Society to expand from a handful of titles a year in the early days to now over 100, including multi-volume sets. One major change that supports this increase of quantity is the move from strictly using letterpress printing to offset printing. Johannes Gutenberg invented letterpress printing around 1440 and it remained the primary technique for book printing until the 19th century. The development of the offset press is credited to two people; Robert Barclay of England who printed on tin in 1875, and American Ira Washington Rubel who in 1903 printed on paper.

Although most of the books produced today by the Folio Society are done so using the faster offset printing, a handful of very special editions are printed letterpress including the ‘ultimate’ edition of Shakespeare’s work. For a mere $595 you can own ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, quarter-bound in goatskin leather, blocked in gold with hand-marbled paper sides, gilded top edge and a ribbon marker. Or if ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ isn’t quite your taste there is ‘Henry VIII’ or ‘Measure for Measure’ or indeed any of Shakespeare’s thirty-three plays all handmade into exquisite works of art. Regardless if the book is ‘limited edition’ or otherwise it’s binding is stitched using traditional materials, buckram, cotton, silk and leather, so that the books sit flat when they are being read and don’t crack over time. Additionally, unlike other publishing houses that have effectively abandoned slipcases, they are revered within the Society and are given as much attention to detail and production quality as the books they protect. Indeed the slipcase has become a defining feature of their books.

As Gavron is now into his eighties it is likely that a new Captain will need to be found to steer the Folio Society, but it has always stayed true to its manifesto regardless of who is at the helm. Every book bought from the Folio Society is an investment for future generations to read and re-read and re-read, and so I look forward to continuing my affair with their books and filling my living-room shelves with these jewels standing proud in their slipcases. Perhaps I’ll even introduce new generations of family to the delights to be found inside the covers of a Folio Society book. As long as they wash their hands first!

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One thought on “Great Literature for the Everyman

  1. Pingback: First Anniversary | Morag Hastie

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