Publishing / Morriss the major printer
August 07th, 2012
Although seldom recognized as a trade publisher, the venerable Victoria printing company that doubles as the home of Sono Nis Press served as the major producer of ‘independent’ titles in B.C. throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. In the process the Morris imprint produced several hundred titles and numerous bestsellers such as George Nicholson’s Vancouver Island’s West Coast. In the Summer 1992 issue of BC BookWorld, author Charles Lillard pays tribute to Morriss Press and its dedicated founder, Charles Morriss.
Charles Morriss was born in Winnipeg in 1907. His father, a boat-builder and carpenter, moved the family to Victoria in 1910. In 1921, the 14-year-old Morriss was taken on as an apprentice with Margison Brothers, a Victoria printing company. During the ensuing 20 years he worked in over 200 printing offices, wandering as far south as California in the process.
After serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Morriss returned to Canada in 1945 and worked in two or three Victoria printing shops and dreamed of owning his own shop. By the early 1950s he had the printing experience and belief in quality work that helped him start a shop at 1052A Fort Street. Morriss and his wife Nesta sold their house and invested the proceeds, plus all their savings – some $5,000 – to start the business.
“I always wanted to be a printer,” Morriss later recalled. “It’s a fine trade that can become a demanding art form. Nothing else has ever appealed to me.”
The first book Charles Morriss printed was Who’s Who in British Columbia, 1953, published by Admatk Ltd., but Dick Morriss, Charlie’s son, remembers his father’s interest in printing books really began when he met Robert Reid, the designer of British Columbia: A Centennial Anthology in 1958. Reid was then teaching at the Vancouver School of Art.
“He designed Canadian Literature for us and that’s really how we got going,” says Dick Morriss.
Morriss Printing’s first venture into printing BC literature was Klanak Islands: Eight Short Stories in 1959 for William McConnell’s Klanak Press. In the same year he printed the first issue of Canadian Literature, Canada’s first periodical entirely devoted to Canadian writing.
In 1964 Morriss asked Victoria author Robin Skelton for some advice about becoming a publisher. “Publish limited editions,” Skelton said. “That way you will enjoy making the books and lose no money.” As it turned out, Morriss became BC’s best-known printer of books in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In one sense he was a very conservative publisher. He preferred a typeface designed over 200 years ago by John Baskerville of Birmingham, England.
In Ocean, Paper, Stone in 1984, Robert Bringhurst describes Baskerville type as “an eighteenth-century rationalist letter well suite dot period books about the European exploration and colonization of this coast, but wholly out of keeping with the spirit of twentieth-century literature.
“Moreover, Morriss was content with the face in its sturdy, foreshortened Intertype version – still to be seen in a great proportion of the best-made books in British Columbia, because it is to this day the only face available at Morriss Printing for machine composition in metal.”
By this time Morriss Printing had its own building at 1745 Blanshard Street, a building that has grown over the years, while remaining the company’s home.
The first large-scale published to come to Morriss’s was Gray Campbell. He was also BC’s first commercial publisher in the post-war years. Although this Morriss-Campbell combo will be remembered for a number of books, for many the outstanding book is M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time, the first Canadian edition of which Morriss printed for Gray in 1968.
Earlier Morriss had printed Peace River Chronicles, by Gordon E. Bowes and published by Prescott Publishing in Vancouver in 1963. Even more successful was George Nicholson’s Vancouver Island’s West Coast, 1762-1962, financed by Nicholson, which sold out by the spring of 1963. The next printing was gone by October 1964 and so it went until 1965, 3750 copies had been sold. Today it is in its twelfth printing.
Rona Murray, whose first book The Enchanted Adder was printed by Morriss and published by Klanak in 1965, came back to Morriss in 1968 to print her second collection, The Power of the Dog. In between Murray’s books, J. Michael Yates had gone to Morriss to print Canticle for Electronic Music in 1967.
Yates published his first collection of prose, and the first book by the Sono Nis Press, Man in the Glass Octopus. In the years to follow Morriss would print books for Oolichan, Island Writing Series, Studio 123, Pharos, Prism International Press, and other largely literary houses.
Among the small non-literary houses Morriss would print for were Akriggs’ Discovery Press, Harry Gregson’s Victoria Observer Publishing Co., ComCept Publishing, The Snow Man Press, UBC Press and Utica.
In subsequent years Morriss would print issues of Prism International, The Malahat Review, The West Coast Review, Room of One’s Own, Event, B.C. Library Quarterly and The Capilano Review.
“When The Malahat Review first appeared in 1967,” recalls Robin Skelton, “Charlie could not resist giving John Peter and me personal copies specially bound. Finely bound books gave him real pleasure and it was a pleasure he delighted to share.”
In 1970 Charles Morriss said that of more than 100 books he had designed hist favourite from an artistic standpoint was The World of W.B. Yeats, edited by Robin Skelton and Ann Saddlemyer in 1965.
“I was finally convinced that nothing would do but to utilize the unicorn, which fascinated the Irish poet,” he once recalled. “All things considered, that book earned me far more flattery than all the prizes.” Booklovers who have the good luck to see this luxurious limited edition don’t soon forget the golden outline of a prancing unicorn on the black cloth cover.
In 1976 Dick Morriss took over Sono Nis Press, which he still operates, and a new period began for the Morriss family’s close relationship with the publishing world of British Columbia. Charles E. Morriss died on St. Patrick’s Day, 1983.
Essay Date: 1992