The Grolier Club

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 67 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A lovely custom-made wooden set of drawers holding a collection of tiny, beautifully bound books.  I had no idea that tiny, beautifully bound books were a thing, much less a collectible thing, and this was like a treasure chest of wonderful suprises.

The Grolier Club is one of the surprisingly large number of private clubs scattered throughout the city, but unlike say the New York Yacht Club, the Grolier puts on free exhibits a couple of times a year that nonmembers can visit.

Exhibits are often inspired by the collections or obsessions of members, and hold to the Grolier’s general theme of printing and the art of the book.

The club is currently buried under massive scaffolding as a new skyscraper is built next to and over it, but happily it remains open despite that.

There were two exhibits the day I went, one on the Aesthetic Movement, and the other called “Images of Value: The Artwork Behind U.S. Security Engraving, 1830s-1980s.”

The engraving show was great, and eye-opening.  At least two firms of professional engravers existed to create libraries of stock images (pun intended) for use on securities certificates, bank notes, etc. They’d also do custom work as well, if you wanted your bank’s president, or a particular picture. Engravings — especially  the human face– were important to make valuable documents prettier, but also to make them harder to counterfeit, so the fineness of the engraving was important.

The show included examples of the original art, sometimes the actual engraving plate, and one or more uses of the engraving on actual currency or tickets or stocks.

It went chronologically, and showed the work of individual engravers in different eras, right up until the demise of fancy stock certificates and the rise of electronic media that spelled the end of the industry.

Just a few highlights:

Martha Washington was the first woman on US federal currency, in the late 19th century.


A set of bank notes for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, designed by A. E. Forrester around 1914 and featuring allegorical scenes of the Greek pantheon, are perhaps the most beautiful currency of the 20th century.

Want to see me on your corporation’s stock certificates? Just ask how!

And finally, at some point around midcentury, someone thought that a naked dude covering himself with a circuit diagram and contemplating some kind of atomic vacuum tube, while Armageddon starts in the background, would be a great image for a technology company stock certificate.

There’s no accounting for taste.

The other show, on the Aesthetic Movement was great too, full of beautiful books reflecting a design moment that took a whole bunch of exotic things and threw them together to create trendy and interesting combinations.  It also created the aesthete him (or her) self,  the hipster of the day, which led to much mockery of “nincompoopiana,” a word I intend to use at the first opportunity.

The Grolier has a great space and a focus that I find fascinating, making this  one of my happiest discoveries in this project so far. I’ll definitely keep an eye on future exhibitions there.  Should you visit?  The only reason I gave the Club 3 stars rather than 4 is because book arts are just a little specialized as a field.  So it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

19th century “aesthete” teapot


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