Promoting the Craft: The Four American Books Campaign

In 1926, RR Donnelley launched its famous Four American Books promotional campaign. Materials about the campaign in the RR Donnelley Archive are important not just for what they reveal about the company's goals, but also for what they contribute to an understanding of the commercial book trade of the time.

RR Donnelley wanted to use the campaign to demonstrate that illustrated books could be printed on modern commercial machinery to a standard that was as good if not better than that of high-quality presses in Europe. The company also hoped the Four American Books would support it in the rapidly expanding mass-market book industry and establish the company as a printer of fine trade editions.

The Four American Books campaign was orchestrated by C. G. Littell, vice president and treasurer, and William A. Kittredge, head of the department of design and typography. Between 1926 and 1930, Littell and Kittredge developed a list of possible books to include, identified authoritative texts, hired the finest illustrators, manufactured the books, and managed an extensive marketing and distribution plan.

One important consideration in compiling the list of books was to find titles that had not been previously illustrated. Four well-known book designers were then asked to select from the list and commissioned to design and illustrate a new edition. Rockwell Kent selected Herman Melville's Moby Dick; W. A. Dwiggins, Edgar Allen Poe's Tales; Edward A. Wilson, Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast; and Rudolph Ruzicka, Henry Thoreau's Walden. Every detail-the choice of paper, typeface, ink, binding materials, and in one case even the design of the wrapping paper and mailing label-was managed by the designer.

The campaign was so successful that in the following years, RR Donnelley received orders for trade books from Random House, the Literary Guild, Harcourt Brace, and others. RR Donnelley's three-volume edition of Moby Dick is still regarded as the definitive illustrated edition of Melville's great work.

Herman Melville (1819-1891).

Moby Dick, or The Whale / illustrated by Rockwell Kent.
Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1930.
R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company Archive.

1,000 copies printed.