Harcourt Bindery History
In 2022, Matthew and Adrienne Raptis of Raptis Rare Books acquired Harcourt Bindery, the oldest and largest traditional hand bookbindery in the country.
While the world has changed and the era of bitcoin and NFTs are becoming more and more prevalent, the history and tradition of physical books is also becoming something to treasure as these items become all the more of a rarity.
At Raptis Rare Books, we are proud to be part of the continuing story of the Harcourt Bindery. Our love and passion for books grew into an antiquarian bookstore located at 329 Worth Avenue (previously 226 Worth Avenue) in Palm Beach, Florida that specializes in fine first editions, signed and inscribed books, and landmark books in all fields. We have distinguished ourselves by having a reputation for handling unique and important books that are in exceptional condition.
Whether you are looking to restore a family heirloom or have a custom clamshell box made to protect a modern first edition book, the Harcourt Bindery will be here to serve you.
History of Harcourt Bindery
In turn of the century Boston, the arts of the book enjoyed a certain prominence. This was the heyday of the private press movement, and men like Daniel B. Updike and Frederic W. Goudy were active in typography and book design on the local scene. Associations such as the New England Bookbinders Guild and the Club of Odd Volumes were formed about this time, and interest in books-especially fine books-ran high. Frederick J. Quinby and Harry L. Chatman appeared in the Boston Directory of 1900, doing business as Frederick J. Quinby & Company, "Publishers and Importers, Rare Books and Fine Bindings." Later in that year another partnership was formed as Huegle, Quinby & Co., bookbinders, at 17 Harcourt Street. The binder was Leopold A. Huegle, whose son, John, was also involved. By the 1902 issue of the directory, Quinby’s advertisement had added the phrase "Proprietors Harcourt Bindery," giving the name which is in use today.
The bindery was purchased by Oakes and William H. Ames of North Easton and Gilmer Clapp of Waltham. These men, who incorporated the business in 1911, were wealthy patrons of the arts who wished to support a craft in the best tradition of the day.
Hand work in fine leather has always been the specialty of the Harcourt shop. The late Fred Young, employed at the Harcourt Bindery since 1917, and owner from 1931-1971, recorded some of his recollections about clients and commissions shortly before his death in May 1977. While most of the work was for private customers, collectors, and dealers, after World War I a great deal of the business came from the West Coast. Interior design firms, such as Cannell and Chaffin of Los Angeles, ordered numerous sets of the classics, bound in full leather, to line the walls of private libraries in the homes of Hollywood stars and other wealthy Californians. Books seem to have been considered a decorative feature in the 1920’s: numerous articles in House & Garden, House Beautiful, Woman’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, and Arts & Decoration advised how rooms could be planned around the colors of bindings, even suggesting pertinent titles appropriate for specific colors.
As with many other businesses, the beginnings of World War II in Europe brought a new stimulus to hand bookbinding. With European communications interrupted, bindings which had been commissioned abroad were executed in the United States. The Harcourt acquired new customers, such as Maurice Inman of New York, who had previously sent his work to England. Fred Young recalled that from a small start, the shop was suddenly catapulted back into huge volume. “Fortunately, there was a box factory on the first floor which was going out of business. The men employed there were all hand craftsmen who had been making special boxes and cases of leather and fabric. We hired many of them and found it easy to retrain them and introduce them to aspects of fine binding.” Harcourt had weathered the storm, but the Rose Bindery of Copley Square, one of their chief competitors, went under in the 1930’s. Once the old competitors dropped away, no new ones appeared. It was even difficult to attract new help, which made the box makers so welcome to Fred Young. The bindery was holding its own, but it was becoming alone in its field.
Fred Young (the forwarder), and his partner, Walter F. Johnston (the finisher), worked at the Harcourt Bindery for a combined total of more than one hundred years. Johnston, who began at 15-17 Harcourt Street and helped move the bindery next door to 9-11 Harcourt Street in 1916, was already foreman when Young joined the staff in 1917. They bought the business together in 1931, and Johnston died in 1969. Young, who sold to Samuel and Emily Ellenport (GBW), in 1971, continued to assist them with special work until his death in the spring of 1977.
There have been many special commissions for the bindery over the years. Custom slipcases were made to hold the sleeping cap of Charles Dickens and the stolen door-key to the honeymoon suite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Many important religious works were bound, the Memorial Edition of Science and Health for the Christian Science Church, and special bindings for the Vatican Library and the Episcopal Church. Prize books for universities and colleges, and publishers’ gift books were among their annual output.
The craft tradition of the hand bindery survives intact at the Harcourt Bindery. The Ellenports came from academic backgrounds, bringing to their work a love for books, fine detail in hand work, and rapport with other book people, librarians, dealers, publishers, and collectors.
Although it is a commercial operation, the bindery relies solely on hand production, from sewing and leather work to the final touch of the finisher in gold leaf or blind stamping.
Much of the shop’s equipment dates back to the beginning of the business, and the ambience is certainly turn of the century. Among other mechanical aids are four Imperial arming presses, one Kensol stamping press, three standing presses, and three job backers. There are eight glider’s tubs, each with a capacity of forty-eight books. In the finishing department are more than 2500 hand tools, including fillets, gouges, left and right corner tools, center tools, and emblematic stamps. There are 250 decorative rolls, 150 plate dies, and six sets of alphabets.
In addition to being one of the few remaining hand binderies of this scale in the country, the Harcourt has another distinction. It is one of the places where the craft of hand binding was taught. In a sunny room adjoining the shop, facing Copley Square, the Ellenports conducted regular classes in basic binding, leather work, and finishing. Special workshops also took place here: sessions for edition binders, dealing with problems in leather repair, hand backing, and the priorities of rare/semi-rare titles in the general library bindery. The Harcourt school room was also the location, since 1974, for the papermaking lecture and workshop of Busyhaus (Robert Hauser, GBW), providing the base for Boston sessions of this unique approach to paper education. Harcourt offered full day workshops in edge gilding and box making; Tools, supplies, and a fine collection of hand marbled papers were offered for sale through the bindery catalogue as well. The spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement and the individual approach to hand work in the book arts have been maintained in Boston by the efforts of many, including the craftsmen in Harcourt’s proud history.
Reprinted from Guild of Book Workers Journal Volume XIV, Number 2 - Winter 1975-6 Written by Helena Wright
A New Era for the Harcourt Bindery
Harcourt purchases the A.M. Sulkin Company
The A.M. Sulkin Company was started in 1901 by Abe and Margaret Sulkin, hence the A.M. in the name. They began in downtown Boston. The business was primarily involved with ledger and stationery binding. The couple’s lawyer, Mr. Leslie Pike, took over the business on the death of the Sulkins in the late 1950s. He had no hands-on experience and ran the business through a manager.
The company had been in premises on Holly Street, behind the old Woolworth building, but was forced to move after a fire. Along with them moved John F. Murray Print, a 1-2 man printing operation which specialized in printing the ruled sheets and other state required texts for many of the books bound by Sulkin. These firms moved to the Church Green Building at 111 Summer Street, but were forced to move again after a fire in 1978. The company established itself at 87 Summer Street until 1986.
Robert Farrell began working at Sulkins in 1972, and Robert DeCristoforo (who became the manager) began working there in 1974. While employed by AM Sulkin, the two Roberts bought a small pen-ruling company which had been owned by Edward M. Thoms for back taxes from the IRS. The new company was called R & R Ruling, and provided ruled stock for the AM Sulkin Company. Financing for the purchase of Thoms’ firm came from John White, of John White Sons, a local purveyor of bookbinding supplies and sundries.
By 1986, Farrell had left AM Sulkin Company, which was managed solely by Robert DeCristoforo, now doing ruling and binding under one roof in a small space just off Summer Street in Downtown Boston. In 1986, the firm moved to 51 Melcher Street. The owner, Mr. Leslie Pike, was now in a nursing home. The company was sold in December of 1986 to The Harcourt Bindery, which moved into the 51 Melcher Street space, combining all the companies. In September 2007, Sulkin was sold to Acme Bookbinding as part of the sale of the Harcourt Bindery. Sulkin and Harcourt were then integrated into Acme’s 100,000 square foot facility in Charlestown, and continued to be managed by Robert DeCristoforo and Sam Ellenport.
In 2012, Acme/Harcourt merged with HF Group, a company which is known for providing expert services in the care, delivery and preservation of information and cultural artifacts of many kinds. While they currently still operate elsewhere in the country, they shut down their Massachusetts hub in 2022, and sold the Harcourt Bindery to Matthew and Adrienne Raptis of Raptis Rare Books. We are pleased to be a part of this history and serve your binding needs for the future.