In 1967 Barry Moser moved from Tennessee to New England and was teaching at The Williston Academy in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He was soon befriended by Louis Smith, a glazer, framer, and print collector who introduced him to Leonard Baskin with whom he studied at Baskin's Gehenna Press. Walking into the pressroom of Gehenna Press was like walking into another age, to a former life. The effect was such that Moser convinced Williston's administration that the school needed a printing press. They acquired a 12 x 18 Chandler Price clamshell press, that came with a run of Goudy Oldstyle. A corner room of the old Easthampton railroad station was given over to set up Williston's Castalia Press and there Moser printed his first letterpress, limited edition book, The Red Rag in 1969.
In the spring of 1969 Moser was commissioned to illustrate a trade book, The Flowering Plants of Massachusetts (Vernon Ahmadjian, University of Massachusetts Press, that was not published until 1979). He became fascinated with plants and plant lore and as a result named his press Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), and under that imprint he published The Death of the Narcissus, a portfolio of “botanico-erotic” etchings. It comprised a half-title page, a title page, a haiku poem by the seventeenth century Edo poet Uejima Onitsura, and a colophon.
That same year Moser began graduate studies in printmaking at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he studied with Jack Coughlin and Fred Becker. On the verge of giving up his quest to master that famously difficult medium of wood engraving, Becker, a master wood engraver himself, encouraged Moser to persist. Under his tutelage Moser produced a group of engravings to accompany Greek epigrams from the Greek Anthology. It was called Bacchanalia, and was the first Pennyroyal book to use wood engravings as illustrations.
Pennyroyal continued to produce a few small books over the next nine years. The most ambitious was Twelve American Writers, a collection of quotations about writing by authors from James Fenimore Cooper to Ernest Hemingway, each paired with corresponding portraits of the authors. It was bound by David Bourbeau.
In 1977 Moser met Andrew Hoyem, who asked if Moser would be interested in illustrating Arion Press’s forthcoming Moby-Dick. He was, he did, and it was published to great fanfare. This had profound ramifications for Pennyroyal Press because, as Moser reasoned in retrospect, he could certainly design a book as well as Hoyem, and Harold McGrath, who was widely considered as the finest letterpress printer in America at the time, was certainly as good a pressman as any of Hoyem’s. And so Moser, McGrath, and Jeff Dwyer, their business manager and partner, determined to produce something that was much grander than any of the previous Pennyroyal books. In 1982 the Pennyroyal Press edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appeared and subsequently won the 1983 American Book Award for the trade edition published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, California.
Following Alice's success, Pennyroyal published four more large-scale volumes in quick succession: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There in 1982; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1983; Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1985; and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also in 1985. By 1985, Pennyroyal Press was back printing smaller, less ambitious volumes, and did so for the next ten years until the publication of its magnum opus, the Pennyroyal Caxton edition of the King James Bible.
Photo by Andrew Chew