Printing and pacifism - the Sessions Book Trust collection

Matt Wigzell explores some of the highlights in the Sessions Book Trust collection, now available as part of the University Library’s Special Collections.



Detail from Desk book for users of printing
(William Sessions Limited, 1900)
Comprising of over 2,000 items, the Sessions Book Trust collection contains examples of nearly all the books printed by the local printing and publishing company Sessions of York. The material in the collection particularly covers local history, pacifism, the history of printing, and books relating to the Society of Friends, as well as having items printed for local authors and businesses.

The firm was originally founded in 1811 by William Alexander, who opened a bookshop in Castlegate. Included in the collection are many books printed and sold by Alexander. Among these are several catalogues containing the books, maps, prints, games and other varied items for sale in his shop. They are a fascinating insight into the activities of a bookseller and literary taste nearly 200 years ago.

Being a devout Quaker, many of the books directly published by William Alexander were of a religious nature. One of the most unusual items is the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible. Certain passages deemed unsuitable for reading aloud to mixed audiences were removed and printed underneath the main text in italics – the preface lamenting “such passages not being couched in terms suited to the present state of refinement”.

Alexander’s business was passed through the hands of several more Quaker owners before being purchased by William Sessions in 1865. Continuing to print and publish in the family’s hands for nearly 150 years, Sessions kept a library of the items they produced which has been gifted to the University.

Probably the most charming is a children’s book, printed around 1945-46. Containing beautiful full-page colour illustrations with accompanying rhymes, it also has a hand-written note from the printers, hinting that Sessions were chosen as they “could offer precious paper!” in an era of scarcity and rationing.

Cover and detail from Twelve fully illustrated cuddle-up tales (B.C.M. Wadger, 1945)

There is also an example of a printing handbook, produced by the company and distributed to potential customers. A cross between a user-guide and brochure, it contains examples of the different typefaces, borders and illustrations available, and is a great reference resource for the printing process in the early 1900’s.

Cover of Desk book for users of printing
(York: William Sessions Limited, 1900)
Sessions produced trade literature for local companies, including this list for Raimes & Co., wholesale chemists based at Micklegate House in York. The catalogue contains prices for medicines and other 1930’s pharmaceutical products, many of which had overstated medicinal benefits. There are some familiar products listed but some which would probably no longer be recommended, such as the Mexican Hair Renewer and the less-than effective sounding Sweeting’s Toothache Elixir.

The final example is the most unusual. Containing six 3D illustrations, the guide to Painting for Welfare and Efficiency has examples of appropriate colour schemes for a range of environments. These include a cinema foyer, lounge, factory, classroom, hospital and cocktail bar, and show how to create a harmonious and relaxed atmosphere in each.

Detail from Painting for welfare and efficiency
(Smith and Walton Ltd, 1949) 
The majority of the books in this fascinating collection are available through the Borthwick Institute for Archives and can be discovered through YorSearch, the Library catalogue. A small selection, including items described here, will appear as part of an exhibition on York printing in early September on the ground floor of the Harry Fairhurst Building.

Comments