Daniel Berkeley Updike

Inducted: 2010
Born: 1860 - Died:
1941

Daniel B. Updike, book designer, and printer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on Feb. 24, 1860. He was the son of Caesar Updike, a lawyer and state representative, and Elizabeth Bigelow Adams. He was an only child born into an old, well-connected New England family. He was a descendant of Richard Smith, one of the earliest settlers of North Kingstown, and his family owned extensive tracts of land in the Wickford area. His intellectual character came from his mother, a French and English literature scholar.

Updike attended private schools in Providence, but his father’s death when he was 17 prevented him from going beyond grammar school. His first book-related job was as a temporary volunteer in the library of the Providence Athenaeum. In 1889, he worked as an errand boy at Houghton, Mifflin & Company of Boston, Massachusetts. He worked at the firm for 12 years, moving to the advertising department, where he prepared copy. Updike quickly began directing how copy might be set up, inspired by his love of order. In his last two years with the firm, he was transferred to its Riverside Press at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he learned about printing mechanics and showed an aptitude for designing books.

Updike took two leaves of absence from his job to travel with his mother in Europe. He became associated with a group of European designers led by the Englishman William Morris, who, reacting to the rigid monotony of industrialization, sought to revive the simple beauty of Medieval design in print, fabric patterns, and other decorative arts. These visits broadened his design capabilities. He completed a book on the rituals of the Episcopal Church, which he designed and printed at the Riverside Press.

Updike left Houghton, Mifflin, in 1893 and founded the Merrymount Press in Boston. He began by publishing the Humanist Library but quickly developed a distaste for the commercial side of the business. He focused on producing high-quality, limited editions for patrons of the fine art of printmaking. His motto was “to do the common work well,” and he excelled at meeting that mantra. As Updike developed as a book designer and printer, he abandoned the revival-of-printing movement inspired by Morris’s beautifully printed books of the late nineteenth century, favoring legibility over ornamentation. He continued to foster the growth of his business by adding to his knowledge of printing. In 1890, he hired John Bianchi as the foreman at Merrymount Press. Between 1896 and 1914, Updike journeyed abroad, going to printing houses such as Kelmscott and Caslon, acquiring type from foundries, and examining books at the British Museum. He also improved his press by acquiring powered machinery, refusing to believe that high-quality books could only be handmade.

Throughout the history of Merrymount Press, Updike was supported by clientele who appreciated fine books. He also received the patronage of commercial publishers such as Thomas Y. Crowell and Scribners, who asked him to design high-quality editions. Among the serious literature bearing the Merrymount imprint were works by Edith Wharton, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sir Philip Sidney. He is best known for his monumental two-volume Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use, first published in 1922 and now in its 3rd edition. This work is still considered essential reading by anyone interested in the history of printing.

In 1911, Updike was invited by the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University to present a course of instruction for printing students. For five years, he lectured on type design and the use of type in various countries. In 1930, Updike completed another essential book, a revised Book of Common Prayer, which James P. Morgan financed. The prayer book, perhaps Updike’s most significant achievement, reflected in its simple decoration and well-planned pages, the functional style that Updike always tried to achieve.

He led a drive to purchase a significant collection of more than one thousand books on early printing from the St. Bride Library in London in 1911. With the addition of other purchases and the contribution of Updike’s own library, the Daniel B. Updike Collection at the Providence Public Library now includes more than 7,500 volumes, some dating from the 16th century. The collection also has more than 600 letters and other manuscripts. Other books, including many Merrymount Press editions, were donated to the North Kingstown Free Library.

His legacy is that of a scholarly printer who pursued high standards, promoted utility over decoration, and designed books by trusting his taste and creative talent. He never married and died at his home in Boston on Dec. 29, 1941, at the age of eighty-one. In his obituary, The Providence Journal wrote, “Printing is one of the most notable of trades, for it is tied intimately with learning and the progress of man. Mr. Updike lived up to and enriched the great tradition of the craft.”

Daniel B. Updike was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2010.

For additional reading:

  • The Updike Collection of Books on Printing, Providence Public Library.
  • Notes on The Merrymount Press & Its Work, by Daniel B. Updike, Merrymount Press, 1934.
  • Printing Types: In the Day’s Work, by Daniel B. Updike, Merrymount Press, 1934.
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