G. MELCHER: DEAN
OF AMERICAN PUBLISHING
esteemed dean of American publishing served as a member of
the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association
and was an active supporter of its Beacon Press. He was also
a member of the Commission on Planning and Review which published
Unitarians Face a New Age (1936). What follows is from
an article penned by his son, David Melcher, published in
the January 1967 issue of the American Library Association's
MELCHER AS I KNEW HIM
When I was six years old and
entering the first grade, the teacher asked each of us to
tell what kind of work our father did. When it came my turn,
I said, "Well, he doesn't work exactly, he just sits at his
desk and talks to people."
Perhaps it was on the basis
of that observation that I decided quite early that I also
wanted to be a publisher. As a matter of fact, I had already
produced my first book, poems, composed by myself, hand lettered
by myself, and dummied up in folio form complete with an instruction
to "put picture here" and a colophon. I didn't bother to identify
the author on the title page, but I took great pains to identify
the printer in the colophon.
Needless to say, our house was
always full of books, some of which became mine, but some
of which were birds of passage which I had to read rapidly
before they were taken back to the office. People often ask
what happens to all the review copies received at the office
of the Publishers' Weekly. They are worked rather hard
actually, as I early became aware. Until they have served
their intended purpose of being listed, forecast, reviewed,
and commented upon, they stay on the working shelves and are
taken out, if at all, only overnight or over the weekend.
Later they become available for staff borrowing. Finally,
they are divided up among the staff.
My father avidly collected Frost
and Lindsay and examples of fine book design by such men as
Updike, the Grabhorns, Bruce Rogers, and so forth.
But he did not necessarily prefer
the rare or limited edition. For the most part, he favored,
instead, the most readable edition of his favorite books.
He did have one specimen, though, from the greatest book of
them all, namely the Gutenberg Bible, a reminder of the part
FGM played in getting the U.S. Congress to purchase a perfect
Gutenberg Bible for the Library of Congress.
Other books flowed through our
house. When my father thought I was of an age to be interested,
a series of books began to appear on what every boy should
know about sex, and I received them in the spirit in which
they were offered and also lent them around the neighborhood.
Once, a good
many years later, I suggested that my father spend a bit more
on clothes. He thought about it, and then said: "I am sorry,
but I can't get interested in it. There are so many things that
interest me more."
There were a great many things that
interested him more, and he gave them both money and time. One was
the Unitarian Church in which he took a very active part, culminating
in another medal, this time a medal for the most distinguished contribution
to the literature of liberal religion. After his death it was named
for him, the Frederic G. Melcher Award.
He took an interest
in the Montclair schools, serving on the Board of Education,
in the Montclair Public Library, and in the Montclair Art Museum.
He took an interest in the civic affairs of Wellfleet, Cape
Cod, where he vacationed
Smith, Storer Lunt, and Frederic Melcher at a Publishers Lunch
Club celebration of Mr. Melcher's 80th birthday in April 1959.
Those Julys on Cape
Cod were what we children remember best about him. The rest of
the year he would be constantly on the go, but in July he went
where there was no telephone and made a complete change of pace.
The cottage at Wellfleet looks out from the top of a bluff, past
two headlands, across twenty miles of bay. We didn't belong to
any yacht clubs, but we took time to read, and sail, and walk
the dunes, and go clamming at low tide, and pick blueberries,
and go for the mail and the daily newspaper. My father loved that
spot so much he specified that his ashes were to be scattered
there when he died. And so it was done.
You could say
that between the many sides of his professional activities, and
the many areas in which he gladly accepted civic and religious
responsibilities, he had hundreds of interests.
In his files one can find evidence
of his activity in support of the United Nations, UNESCO,
the American Civil Liberties Union, the birth control and
the integration movements. One finds him calling for an end
to the Dies Committee and the McCarthy persecutions. And one
finds him lobbying indefatigably for U.S. adherence to international
copyright and against obstacles to the free flow of books
across national boundaries. He campaigned against censorship
at every provocation.
At the same time that he fought
the censors, he also urged responsibility upon publishers.
He though of publishing as a profession, but he reminded publishers
that the essence of a profession is the acceptance by the
profession of the responsibility to set and observe definite
standards. Publishing, he felt, was privileged in many waysin
copyright protection, in special postal rates, in direct expenditure
for books by tax-supported schools and libraries, etc.
He especially urged that publishers
and booksellers take a hint from the library profession and
establish schools of bookselling and publishing.
For a man who
felt, with Christopher Morley, that bookselling is the highest
of callings, he also gave away a good many. When New York University
established a course in publishing, he promptly made a personal
donation to it of a core collection of 200 basic books on publishing.
He gave his collection of Vachel Lindsay manuscripts to the
University of Indiana. He gave to the Princeton University Library
the Bowker files covering World War II and 147 private press
books and limited editions from his own collection. He helped
restock the Wellfleet Public Library when it burned, and also
bought for them a portion of a Thoreau manuscript dealing with
My topic has been, of course,
"Fred Melcher as I Knew Him." Perhaps I may conclude by quoting
from one of those others who knew him only briefly, yet could
"I knew your father only a very
short time, and I am not sure he would remember me at all.
However, I came to him one day in a state of discouragement
about what I was trying to do, presuming on his reputation
for hospitality, and intending to ask his advice about some
specific problems. I never had to bring them up. Somehow his
quick grasp of what I was trying to do, and his warm appreciation
of its importance, made the problems seem minor, and I came
away knowing how I was going to solve them and refreshed and
fired by his spirit and dedication to the cause of books and
From the Library
Journal, April 1, 1963
Melcher, was chairman of the R. R. Bowker Company, and editor
and co-editor of Publishers' Weekly for 40 years. Throughout
his 68-year business career, Mr. Melcher combined those two
qualities that all librarians are supposed to havehe
loved people and he loved books. Countless individuals were
touched by his spark and warmed by his friendship. The force
of his personality and the enthusiasm with which he conveyed
his delight in books helped shape the American book trade
and the library profession of the 20th century.
A co-founder of Children's Book
Week, he was a tireless innovator of programs to honor books
and encourage reading. Publishers, librarians and booksellers,
all were stimulatedby his talks, his editorial statements
in Publishers' Weekly and Library Journal, his
articles in various media, his awards, and thousands of interviewsto
see what their professions could be, at their best. A spirited
leader in scores of library and book trade organizations,
he enlivened their meetings with practical suggestions and
long-range ideas. He championed booksellers in their perennial
efforts to combat cut-rate selling of books. He supported
authors, publishers and retailers in battles against censorship
and for the freedom to read. He fought hard and long for proper
recognition of children's books and children's librarianship.
He was a leader, too, in domestic and international copyright
reform. He served repeatedly as an international ambassador
in book industry affairs.
Melcher receives the Regina Medal in 1962 from Sister
Marie Pius, S.S.J.
A man who knew the insides
of many books, he also cared about how a book is made, and
encouraged graphic artists in the 20th century renaissance
of American book design.
Mr. Melcher was a man who
liked to put things in a historical perspective, and began
collecting books about books almost as soon as he entered
the business. More importantly, he encouraged young researchers
and other scholars to use his collection in writing about
book trade problems and history. He assembled noteworthy
collections, too, in the fields of fine printing and children's
literature. As a personal publishing venture, he issued
facsimile editions of several miniature books first published
in Colonial America.
Much of Mr. Melcher's accomplishment
stemmed from a capacity to crystalize the essentials of
an issue or an idea, and then, with infectious vigor, to
impel groups of people to take action.
Mr. Melcher was born on April
12, 1879, in Malden, Mass. Four years later the family moved
to Newton Center, Mass., then a fairly isolated country
village. There he grew up, attended public schools and began
a lifetime familiarity with books. In an essay in 1945,
"On Becoming Acquainted With Books," he recalled, "Much
reading, of course, was from my own books and those I borrowed
from friends. Our home library was not large but it had
additions at Christmas and birthdays. The books you owned
you were likely to read several times."
As a student at Newton High
School, he took a college preparatory course and planned
to enter Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time
of his graduation, however, a combination of family illness
and poor economic conditions following the "panic" of 1893
led him to conclude that he should get a job. His maternal
grandfather found him one in the famous Estes & Lauriat
Bookstore. There, at the proverbial $4 a week, in June 1895,
Mr. Melcher's business life began.
A salesman on the floor at
Lauriat's within a few years, Mr. Melcher soon became known
to the store's clientele for his charm, enthusiasm and literary
taste. His influence extended well beyond Boston, and he
was credited, for example, with launching Arnold Bennett's
Old Wives' Tale in this country by placing an order
for 500 copies. The size of that order prompted a major
promotion which led it to best-sellerdom.
Mr. Melcher took charge of children's books, "because no one
else seemed interested in them." With the help of review lists
prepared by Caroline Hewins, New England librarian, he soon
had a large clientele turning to him for advice about children's
reading. In Caroline Hewins' honor he established in 1947
an annual lectureship on New England children's books which
is presented at the meetings of the New England Library Association.
In 1910 he
married Marguerite Fellows, who is known as an author of children's
books, plays and Americana.
The Melchers moved in 1913
from New England to Indianapolis, where Mr. Melcher had
been offered the managership of the W. K. Stewart Bookstore.
Shortly after his arrival, the bookstore was destroyed in
a disastrous fire, but it was soon reestablished. During
his five-year tenure in Indianapolis, Mr. Melcher met Vachel
Lindsay, who until his death remained a close friend. He
came to know also the fine printers, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn,
who had a small press in Indianapolis, where the Melchers
had their Christmas cards designed.
In 1918, Mr. Melcher read
in Publishers' Weekly that its editorship was vacant,
and he applied to Richard Rogers Bowker for the job. He
was hired, and moved his family to Montclair, near New York.
During his first few years
in New York, Mr. Melcher divided his time between service
to the Bowker Company and service, first, as secretary of
the American Booksellers Association (1918-20) and, then,
as executive secretary of the National Association of Book
Publishers (1920-24): for a short period the two jobs overlapped.
He also served as president (1924-25) of the Booksellers
League of New York, and as president of the New York Library
Association in 1936.
G. Melcher, 1879-1963.
Mr. Bowker died in 1933 and
in January 1934, Mr. Melcher was elected to succeed him
as president of the company. During Mr. Melcher's 25-year
presidency, the company successfully weathered the Depression
and then World War II, and subsequently underwent a postwar
period of rapid expansion. He resigned the presidency in
1959 to become chairman of the board of directors.
constantly sought occasions to celebrate books, book reading
and publishing. In 1919, he was co-founder, with Franklin
K. Mathiews, librarian of the Boy Scouts, of Children's Book
Week. He originated and was the donor, beginning in 1922,
of the annual Newbery Medal for the "most distinguished book
for children" and, beginning in 1937, of the annual Caldecott
Medal for the "most distinguished picture book for children."
He was a founder and driving
force of the American Booksellers Association's book presentation
program for the White House library, and the initial book
lists for almost all the presentations were prepared under
In 1943, Mr. Melcher established
the annual Carey-Thomas Award for creative publishing, which
is presented by Publishers' Weekly.
In 1954, Mr. Melcher was a
founding member of the National Book Committee and maintained
an active interest in its work. He served as vice president
of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. and was active in
the anti-censorship programs of the American Civil Liberties
Union. He was on the book selection committee of the English-Speaking
Union's Books-Across-the-Sea Program, a member of the council
of the Authors league; and a past president of the P.E.N.
the Children's Librarians Association (now the Children's
Services Division of ALA) established a scholarship in Mr.
Melcher's honor, to be presented annually to a prospective
librarian interested in work with children. In 1962, the Catholic
Library Association gave Mr. Melcher its Regina Medal in recognition
of a lifetime contribution to children's literature.
Mr. Melcher's 50th anniversary
in the book industry was marked at a dinner on May 21, 1945,
held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, and attended
by some 700 friends and colleagues. For the occasion, the
Book Publishers Bureau published a keepsake volume, containing
articles about Mr. Melcher.
In 1958, Mr. Melcher received
an honorary Litt. D. degree from Rutgers University. The
following year, as he was celebrating his 80th birthday,
he received an honorary Litt.D. from Syracuse University
at ceremonies where a similar degree was conferred on his
long time friend, poet Robert Frost.
lived in Montclair, N.J., for 45 years and was active in local
civic and church affairs. He served on the Montclair board
of education for 13 years and was a trustee of the Montclair
Art Museum. Active in the Unitarian Church of Montclair, he
was at various times superintendent of its Sunday school and
president of its board of trustees. The contributions of Mr.
and Mrs. Melcher to the life of the church were marked last
year when the church dedicated a children's library room in
G. Melcher : friendly reminiscences of a half century among
books & bookmen edited by Mildred C. Smith (New York : The
Book Publishers' Bureau, 1945).