Handpress Library #7: (Not the) Daniel Press

Been ages since we updated the handpress library, so here's a little item we found at the Vancouver book fair last fall: A Dyetary, or the Medecine of the Stomach, As printed by William Caxton in 1489. The bookseller who had this little pamphlet had marked it as a Daniel Press item, which wasn't quite accurate. It was, in fact, printed on "the old Daniel press in the Bodleian Library" in 1963 by one Roy Vernon Sowers.

Sowers was a bookseller of sufficient legend that a slim biography of him, written by Roger Mason, was published by a small Canadian imprint in 1997. The publisher's description offers a succinct profile of the subject:

"Roy Vernon Sowers (he neither used nor permitted any abbreviation of the name) was a legendary figure in the antiquarian book world, or, to be precise, worlds. A Canadian whose first shop, in the mid-1920s, was a mecca for Toronto collectors and writers, Sowers later settled in southern California. There he dealt rarities to the emerging carriage trade and subsequently worked at the famous Huntington Library. Later still, he was a conspicuous book and print dealer at a succession of locations in San Francisco, where he patronized and promoted the fine-press movement. 

"Sowers, who died in 1970, spent his last years gathering books in Britain and Europe for resale through catalogues from his remote fruit farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains (where, because of the danger of fire, he kept his priceless inventory in an adobe structure that he designed and built himself). 

"His catalogues (he issued seventy-five in all) were notable for more than the often extraordinary books they described so knowledgeably, from modern first editions (in the early years of his career) to titles in medicine and the history of science (areas which Sowers helped make fashionable). His catalogues were themselves collected for the grumpy erudition of their introductory essays, pieces which grew more curmudgeonly as Sowers became increasingly disenchanted with the contemporary world."

(The biography was published as a paperback 'limited to" 950 copies. While writing this today, we discovered there also were 50 copies signed by the author, cased in cloth. FYI.)

Sowers published at least one book that he had printed by the Grabhorns (Joan the Maid of Orleans, 1938), and his cataloging was sufficiently entertaining for the Blackwood Press to issue a compilation of his more exercised pieces (1980).

The four-page Dyetary extract is set in what looks to be an 18-pt black letter, and his one-page afterword in an italic (probably Caslon - uh; can't tell if the font is really worn, or just poorly printed; probably both). It reads, in part:

"During 1489, William Caxton issued in one volume, from his press in Westminster, two works, the Governayle of Helthe & the Dyetary; with the exception of a cautionary tract against the plague, these are the first medical printed in English. Caxton's original is known in but two copies; that in the Bodleian Library, discovered in a volume of old Black Letter tracts, & the Ham House copy, long believed unique, and which is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library."

The Dyetary's printing's a bit uneven, not helped by the handmade paper having been printed dry, but it is nonetheless an endearing item that attests to Sowers' interest in both medicine and printing.