Considered by many, one of the three greatest American printers, Daniel Berkeley Updike was born in Providence on February 14, 1860. 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, most notably Cocumscussoc. Updike attended private school and worked for a time at the Providence Athenaeum. It was here, perhaps, that he developed an appreciation for the art of fine printing. In 1880 Updike moved to Boston and was employed by publisher Houghton, Mifflin as an errand boy. Within a short time, however, he was learning typographic design from printers at the firm’s Riverside Press.
Updike became associated with a group of European designers, led by the famous 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. Updike opened his own press in Boston in 1893, publishing the Humanist Library, but quickly developed a distaste for the commercial side of the business. Three years later, he established the Merrymount Press focusing his efforts on producing high quality, limited editions for patrons of the fine art of printmaking. His working motto was “to do the common work well” and he excelled at meeting that mantra.
Updike 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 typography or the history of printing. Updike often lectured on printing at Harvard’s Graduate School of Business and received honorary degrees from that institution and from Brown University. Updike was active in a number of organizations and served as a trustee of the Boston Athenaeum.
In 1911 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. With the addition of other purchases and the contribution of Updike’s own library, the Daniel Berkeley Updike Collection at the Providence Public Library now includes more than 7,500 volumes, some dating from the 16th century, as well as more than 600 letters and other manuscripts. Other volumes, including many Merrymount Press editions, were donated to the North Kingstown Free Library.
Updike died in Boston on December 29, 1941 at the age of eighty-one. A day following his death, The Providence Journal, paying tribute to “one of the finest printers of his age,” noted that, “printing is one of the most noble of trades, for it is tied in intimately with learning and with the progress of man. Mr. Updike lived up to and enriched the great tradition of the craft.”
– Paul R. Campbell