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Last Modified: December 19, 2023
The Institute of Applied Art Feature Image: A Black and white photo of the Institute of Applied Art building, 1930. "THE INSTITUTE OF APPLIED ART: the Forgotten Story of Alberta's First Book Publisher" is written in white text on a black coloured background at the left side of the graphic.
The Institute of Applied Art: The Forgotten Story of Alberta’s First Book Publisher
A black and white photograph of W. Clarence Richards.
W. Clarence Richards (1895-1963), educator, publisher, civic leader. Calgary Herald, March 13, 1954. Image accessed via Newspapers.com.

It’s often said that Alberta’s first bona fide book publisher came into being in 1949, but that is not true. A little digging reveals that this distinction belongs to the Institute of Applied Art, which got its start almost three decades before.

In the early 1920s, W. Clarence Richards (1895–1963) was a young high school teacher finding his feet in Edmonton. To supplement his salary as a gym and science teacher, he taught night classes at Alberta College and tutored students. Soon he earned enough to buy a bicycle to commute between his day and night jobs.

When people discovered Richards’ mimeographed course materials, demand surged. His notes filled a gap, since the province’s Department of Education only produced correspondence materials for elementary grades.

By 1925, Richards was enlisting colleagues to write teachers’ manuals and correspondence courses in a variety of subjects. The printed booklets found their way to bookstores around the province, apparently to the chagrin of the Department of Education. In a 2006 lecture, historian and one-time Institute author Tony Cashman said that bureaucrats called Richards “a bootlegger” and “a communist.”

Black and white photo of the Institute of Applied Art building, 1930.
The Institute of Applied Art building, 1930. Edmonton Journal, August 28, 1930. Image accessed via Newspapers.com.

Undaunted by these epithets, Richards and his associates formed a new enterprise called the Institute of Applied Art. When rent soared in 1929, Richards used his own furniture as loan collateral to construct a purpose-built office at 10042 109th Street (south of today’s WSP Place). The Edmonton Bulletin offered unqualified praise for the one-storey Institute when it opened in the summer of 1930: “Such a building, housing as it does various branches of artistic and education endeavor is unique in Canada.”

In the Institute’s main floor editorial offices, Richards co-ordinated contributions from more than forty teachers around the province. A shop on site sold the company’s text books as well as school supplies. In the basement, according to the Bulletin, a “light and airy” printing plant produced the Institute’s educational materials and provided commercial printing.

As the company’s name suggests, the Institute of Applied Art was about more than publishing. Its brick and concrete building also served as a cultural hub. Music and dance teachers held lessons in studio spaces. The recital hall, complete with a Steinway piano, featured concerts, lectures, private parties, and club events. The local (Charles) Dickens Fellowship often held gatherings in what one attendee called the “comfortable quarters of the IAA Building.”

It’s likely that cultural activities would also have supplied a steady stream of customers for the Institute’s textbook and printing business.

In 1932, Richards branched out from school-focused materials and produced the Institute’s first general nonfiction book, Birds of the Battle River Region by Frank L. Farley. The Camrose ornithologist may have invited his young nephew Farley Mowat on research outings.

A review in the Edmonton Journal sang the praises of the illustrated 85-page book: “The publication is in every way a valuable addition to the constantly-growing number of Alberta literary products.”

Those “literary products” were on the rise thanks to another publishing gap. Alberta stories—both for general readers and students—were a tough sell in the country’s Toronto-based publishing centre.

Richards took up the charge. In 1934, the Institute launched History Readers of the Old North-West. Aimed at Alberta Grade Five students, the series focused on topics of regional relevance: First Nations people of the Plains, the Mounted Police, and the North-West Rebellion.

A decade later, the press embarked on its first full-length trade book. Published in 1944, On the Side of the Law: A Biography of J. D. Nicholson was a lively narrative by Edmonton writer J. W. Horan. The book recounts an Alberta policeman’s involvement in several notorious criminal cases, with illustrations by Calgary artist Jim Nicoll.

The Journal called On the Side of the Law “a grand detective story and … a fine local production, of which even old-established publishing centres would be proud.” The Bulletin was equally enthusiastic: “Give a Boy This Book for Christmas.” Soon, On the Side of the Law was approved as a textbook for Alberta students.

The Institute’s next trade title arrived by way of Edmonton engineer James G. MacGregor. His first Alberta history book had failed to get the attention of a Toronto press. According to the Calgary Herald, the affable MacGregor wandered into the Institute building, manuscript in hand, and Richards said “Yes.”

Photo of the Blankets and Beads book cover.
Blankets and Beads book cover. Image credit: Shaun Hunter.

Published in 1949, Blankets and Beads: A History of the North Saskatchewan River received glowing reviews. The Herald called it “a colorful history of our own North West.” The style was “racy” and the story “absorbing.”

Richards’ preface to Blankets and Beads captures the Institute’s aim “to present the most colorful episodes of the past … so that more may know how the present came to be.”

The approach worked. Five years after Blankets and Beads came out, sales were still strong and MacGregor’s second career as a prolific and popular writer of regional history was launched.

Tony Cashman describes Richards as “a one-man show. He dealt personally with writers, delivered books personally to retailers and found creative talent in the community.” He connected books with readers, “One on one…one at a time…that was the publishing business.”

The Institute got its start during the challenging economic times of the 1920s and 30s, and operated in an era before government publishing grants. Even in the late 1950s, the printing shop continued to use what Cashman describes in When Edmonton Was Young as “an ancient letter press.”

Cashman also recalls that Richards financed each of the Institute’s trade books with profits from the previous title—“a method only for the brave.” Revenues from educational materials, printing services, and facility rentals also likely helped support the press’s trade book program. Tellingly, Richards, a father of three, held onto his day job at Victoria Composite High School.

Black and white photo of an Institute of Applied Art advertisement.
Institute of Applied Art advertisement. Edmonton Journal, Aug 28, 1964. Image accessed via Newspapers.com.

Readers responded to Richards’ enthusiasm for local history by buying the Institute’s books. This was the decade of the province’s Golden Jubilee. During an era of post-war prosperity, Albertans were reflecting on the past. As Frances Swyripa notes in Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed, the “central feature of the jubilee celebration was unarguably the honouring of Alberta’s oldtimers.”

Once again, Clarence Richards’ trade publishing program was in sync with the times. “Western Canadiana!” a 1960s newspaper ad reads. “Warm, humorous, educational publications presented in a manner enjoyable to all ages” and “spiced with fascinating characters.”

Photo of Eye Opener Bob book cover.
Eye Opener Bob book cover, 1967 edition. Image credit: Abe Books.

When Richards died in 1963, the Institute had published around twenty trade nonfiction titles about Alberta and by Alberta writers. One of those books, Grant MacEwan’s 1957 biography of iconic journalist Bob Edwards, made provincial publishing history. As Lee Shedden notes in his editor’s afterword to the 2004 edition of Eye Opener Bob, “Without the benediction of the national cultural centre of Toronto or the colonial magnates in London, a book published in the West, about the West, and solely for the people of the West found its way into the hands of thousands of readers.”

From its beginnings a century ago on a humble mimeograph machine, the Institute of Applied Art would go on to break cultural ground. Alberta’s first book publisher charted a path for a new generation of homegrown presses that would flourish in the province’s Camelot years of the 1970s.

Top marks to Clarence Richards for getting the presses rolling.

About the Author

Shaun Hunter author photo

Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. You can find Shaun at shaunhunter.ca

Feature image: The Institute of Applied Art building, 1930. Edmonton Journal, August 28, 1930. Image accessed via Newspapers.com.