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Melcher, Frederic G. (1879-1963)

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Below are two biographical perspectives on Frederic G. Melcher, the first penned by his son, Daniel Melcher, published in the January 1967 issue of the American Library Association’s ALA Journal; the second a tribute to Melcher published in the April 1963 issue of the Library Journal.

Biographical Introduction

The 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).

Frederic Melcher
Frederic G. Melcher

Fred Melcher as I Knew Him
By Daniel Melcher

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 each July.

Melcher on his birthday
Mildred 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 ways—in 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 Wellfleet.

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 say:

“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 reading.”

Frederic G. Melcher

Frederic Gershom 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 have—he 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.

Melcher receives Regina Medal
Frederic Melcher receives the Regina Medal in 1962 from Sister Marie Pius, S.S.J.

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 stimulated—by his talks, his editorial statements in Publishers’ Weekly and Library Journal, his articles in various media, his awards, and thousands of interviews—to 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.

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.

At Lauriat’s, 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.

Frederic Melcher
Frederic G. Melcher

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.

Mr. Melcher 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 his direction.

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. Club.

In 1955, 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.

Mr. Melcher 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 their name.

— From the Library Journal, April 1, 1963.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

The Biography of Daniel Melcher

Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Smith, Mildred C., ed. Friendly Reminiscences of a Half Century Among Books & Bookmen. New York: The Book Publishers’ Bureau, 1945.