The Splendid Idle Forties: Stories of Old California, by Gertrude Atherton, Allen Press (1960)

Gertrude Atherton (1857 – 1948) was an American author best known for her novels set in her home state of California. She was a prolific writer of short stories and articles, in addition to her novels. Her best-known works are Black Oxen (1923) and the short story collection titled The Splendid Idle Forties (1902). She also attained critical success in the non-fiction realm with The Conqueror (1902), a biography of Alexander Hamilton. Atherton was often controversial and was proponent of social reforms and feminism.  Her heroines were often strong and independent. She is a good story-teller, no doubt, though the quality of her writing seems a bit sporadic. None-the-less, the stories in The Splendid Idle Forties hold interest, reflecting an interesting time and place in American history. She often presents life in California under Mexican rule in a nostalgic, almost idyllic manner. The Splendid Idle Forties has been described as the “best collection of stories telling of that picturesque period of the Far West when the incoming Americans were first mingling with the Californians of rancho, presidio and mission.” 

The real reason you really must want to have and/or hold this book is the extraordinary production quality. As with all Allen Press books, the paper is as good as it gets, in this case all-rag Rives from France. As always, the Allens printed this damp, with hand-set type in Romanée. Lewis and Dorothy Allen were big on color, believing every page should have at least two colors; here each page has black and red. What makes The Splendid Idle Forties one of their greatest works is the title page and initial lettering. The title page is a simply marvelous demonstration of beautiful head-turning design (as you will see below). The titling information in red, is interleaved with a design of stem and leaves engraved by Mallette Dean and hand-painted in a number of colors by Dorothy Allen. It is ‘wow!’ invoking. The initial lettering to start each story is just as spectacular. Also engraved by Mallette Dean and hand-painted in a number of colors by Dorothy Allen, the lettering designs pick up on and extend the stem and leaves pattern of the title page. Stunning it is, a true piece of book art. To wrap up such a beautiful edition, the Allens bound the book in one of the world’s finest fabrics, a Fortuny print, hand-blocked in Venice.

The book was printed in an edition of 150 copies, and so can be difficult to locate, especially in fine condition. However, with patience, once can find this in very good + or better condition for $400-500. Considering the quality and hand-done nature of the production, this is a fantastic deal for such a fine press book.

About the Edition

  • Seven large and beautiful initials and 19 divisional ornaments engraved by Mallette Dean, all hand-illuminated in a variety of colors by Dorothy Allen
  • Each page printed in black and red; ink imported from Germany especially for the press
  • Typeface is Romanée, set by hand
  • The paper is all-rag Rives from France, printed damp on a 19th century Acorn Handpress
  • Bound in one of the world’s finest fabrics, a Fortuny print, hand-blocked in Venice
  • Preface by Oscar Lewis
  • 120 pages, 13 1/2″ x 9 1/2″
  • Limited to 150 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Slipcase (Custom)
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Slipcase (Custom)
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Spine and Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Spine and Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Spine
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Spine
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Cover
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Side View Marco
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Side View Marco
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Half-Title
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Half-Title
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Title Page
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Title Page
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Colophon
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Colophon
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #1 - Introduction
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #1 – Introduction
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Page #1 - Introduction
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Page #1 – Introduction
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #2
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #2
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #3
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #3
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #4
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #4
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #6
Splendid Idle Forties, Allen Press, Sample Page #5

4 thoughts on “The Splendid Idle Forties: Stories of Old California, by Gertrude Atherton, Allen Press (1960)

  1. Inexplicably, the Allen Press remains the most under appreciated and undervalued of the great twentieth century private presses. Additionally, aside from a few cutting edge booksellers (Sophie Schneideman Rare Books and Collinge & Clark immediately come to mind) they are virtually unknown in the United Kingdom.

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