Cranbrook’s Great Books (Part 1)

Across Cranbrook’s campus are eleven different spaces, including the Archives, that house book collections – some 110,000 physical items. Several of these spaces are typical school or academic research libraries, where students, faculty, and staff can check out the majority of these books. As a library and information science professional, I champion the importance of these lending libraries and the egalitarian access to information they provide.

In this post, however, I’d like to focus on Cranbrook’s non-circulating book collections – those rare, historic, or valuable tomes that, in many cases, hide in plain sight in public areas. With help from colleagues at the Academy of Art, Schools, Institute of Science, and Center for Collections and Research, I’ll highlight some of these gems that promise to delight the bibliophile, art appreciator, historian, or simply the Cranbrook curious.

Cranbrook’s special book collections are carefully preserved as both informational and evidential artifacts, and many are housed within cultural heritage areas. Valued not only for research purposes, they also serve as historical objects which help individually or collectively to tell the Cranbrook story.

South end view of the newly completed Cranbrook House Library, 1920. John Wallace Gillies, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The origin of book collecting at Cranbrook actually predates any of the current collection spaces and begins with Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth. George, in particular, was an enthusiastic collector, and started acquiring volumes in 1900, commissioning purchases of William Morris works and other fine books in London. As George explained, “I am not a millionaire and cannot pay the big prices now prevailing in New York.” His strategy allowed him to accumulate 1,000 books by 1916, effectively seeding the Cranbrook House Library Collection when construction of the library wing was completed four years later.

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Confessions of a Book Nerd

I have a confession to make. The smell of library books, an afternoon at an independent book store, re-reading a favorite novel – these are my ultimate indulgences. I could spend hours reading book blogs, listening to author interviews, or pouring over book-related tchotchkes on Etsy. I am a book nerd. My (nearly) one year as an Archivist at Cranbrook has been heaven. I discover something new every time I have the opportunity to walk into George Booth’s personal library at Cranbrook House. I find profound satisfaction in creating a catalog record for a new book or discussing MARC records with colleagues.

One of my favorite collections at Cranbrook is the Cranbrook Press and Photo Department Records. While working on a Cranbrook Press request recently, I came across the work of the bookbinder, Jean Eschmann (1896-1961), hired by George Booth in 1929. Eschmann was hired to set up the bookbinding workshop in the Arts and Crafts Studios at Cranbrook, where he remained until 1933 when desperate financial times forced the closure of the studio.

Jean Eschmann binding, Cranbrook Archives

English Fairy Tales, tooled leather. ca 1931. Cranbrook Archives.

Educated in Zurich, Eschmann traveled and studied in Austria, France and Switzerland. He came to the United States with his family in 1919. He was a member of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston and studied with Mary C. Sears. In 1929 George Booth hired Eschmann to create handmade bindings for the Art library and for his own personal library. Eschmann also taught bookbinding and hand-tooling classes to the community.

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The First Published Life of Abraham Lincoln, tooled leather. ca 1931. Cranbrook Archives.

Eschmann’s work has been exhibited at various museums in the United States, as well as at the Book Workers Guild in New York. His bindings were included at the World Fair in Paris in 1937 and at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco in 1939. In 1945 Eschmann received the emblem for Meritorious Service from the Civilian Awards Committee of the Surgeon General’s Office for his work in restoring thousands of rare books at the Army Medical Library during World War II.

Evidence of Eschmann’s beautiful leather and tooling work can be seen in several examples in the rare book collections here in the Archives, and also in the Academy of Art library. I hope you enjoy the examples in this post. They definitely make this book nerd swoon!

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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