The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Coleman, Carroll
(June 1, 1904–June 5, 1989)

–proprietor of the Prairie Press—was born in Livingston, Iowa, to Ernest Coleman, a real estate agent, and Arminda Coleman, a public school teacher. When Carroll was 12 years old, the Coleman family moved to Muscatine, Iowa. Coleman first engaged in printing at the age of seven with a set of rubber type and ink pad, and developed a serious interest in printing while attending Muscatine High School. As a result of over-enrolled woodworking classes, Coleman opted for a printing course instead. By the time he graduated from high school in 1923, Coleman had bought his own hand press, printed a short-lived literary journal titled the Pied Typer, and worked part-time at two different print shops in Muscatine.

    Following graduation, Coleman apprenticed at the Weis-Lupton Printing Company in Muscatine, where he worked until 1927. In 1925 he launched his own quarterly magazine of verse, the Golden Quill, which lasted a mere six issues but sparked a desire to print noncommercial publications. In 1927 Coleman began working at the Muscatine Journal, mainly setting type, and grasping any free time for his own basement press. In 1933 long hours and an increased workload triggered a rare heart ailment, requiring Coleman to undergo two surgeries. He quit the Muscatine Journal in 1934.

    While recovering, Coleman read a great deal of poetry, became acquainted with members of the Iowa Authors' Club, and studied typography through books available at the local library and libraries in Chicago. With the purchase of a larger printing press, Coleman's Prairie Press issued its first book in 1935, Contemporary Iowa Poets, an anthology containing the work of 36 Iowans. Instead of reprinting classic works, the Prairie Press focused on contemporary regional authors, eventually expanding to become somewhat national in scope. Books published by Coleman at the Prairie Press became known for their elegant typography and limited print runs, but remained affordable to encourage the public to read living authors. To make ends meet for the Prairie Press, Coleman opened a commercial print shop in Muscatine. Around this time, he was selected for membership in the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which named 13 of his books to its "Best Fifty Books of the Year" list over the next 30 years.

    Over its first decade, the Prairie Press printed more than 70 books, including works by Thomas Duncan, James Hearst, and Ruth Suckow. Perhaps one of its best-known books was Oh Millersville! (1940). The book, with verses written from the perspective of a young midwestern girl, Fern Gravel, was praised by critics and was so popular with the public that the press issued a second edition. Not until 1946 did the true author of the work, James Norman Hall, reveal the hoax and collabora tion with Coleman in an article in Atlantic Monthly.

    On August 28, 1940, Coleman married Genevieve Aitken, a native of Muscatine, in Davenport, Iowa; the couple had no children. In 1945 Coleman moved the Prairie Press to Iowa City when he accepted a position created for him in the Journalism Department at the State University of Iowa. His position required him to create and operate a Typographic Laboratory to educate students in typography while also working part-time as typographic designer at University Publications. Coleman continued to publish books when he found time, especially as his status was changed from full-time to part-time. He did, however, receive tenure and the rank of full professor by 1954. In 1956 he reluctantly took the job of director of publications and stepped down from the Typographic Laboratory, suggesting Harry Duncan as his successor. The new position gave him little satisfaction and left him even less time for the Prairie Press. Coleman remained in the position for five years, retiring in August 1961 to devote all of his time to the press.

    In 1962 alone, the Prairie Press issued eight new books, including The Norfolk Poems by Hayden Carruth. Although Coleman's work over the next decade was hampered by failing eyesight and other health concerns, he published more than 40 works, including six by August Derleth. After a severe heart attack in 1971, Coleman was unable to continue publishing anything more than Christmas greetings and occasional booklets. Coleman was honored for his contributions to fine printing with a show at the Grolier Club in 1976. He died in June 1989, receiving little of the recognition he deserved for his influential and inspiring work with the Prairie Press.
Sources Coleman's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also Michael Peich, Carroll Coleman and the Prairie Press (1991); John M. Harrison, "A Confirmed Typomaniac: Carroll Coleman and the Prairie Press," Books at Iowa 62 (April 1995); L. O. Cheever, "The Prairie Press: A Thirty Year Record," Books at Iowa 3 (November 1965); and Emerson G. Wulling, "Carroll Coleman on Printing, with a Prairie Press Checklist, 1965–1975," Books at Iowa 23 (November 1975).
Contributor: Nana Diederichs Holtsnider