Eulogy for an Extra-Illustrator

On March 14, 1917, a month shy of his 73rd birthday, John Mansir Wing, benefactor of the Newberry's Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, died after “catching a chill” in the library’s reading room (a word to the wise: bring a sweater).

Born in New York in 1844, Wing worked as a printer’s devil, typesetter, journalist, proofreader, newspaper entrepreneur, and publisher. He was successful enough to retire in 1888 (one year after the establishment of the Newberry) at the age of 44; he devoted the rest of his life to book collecting and extra-illustration—the practice of adding extra material, such as portraits, prints, maps, or ephemera to books in order to create a unique copy. Wing made 375 extra-illustrated books, which he gave to the Newberry along with the rest of his book collection upon his death.

A self-styled eccentric, Wing was an early adopter of “alternative facts.” He published a Wing family journal, The Owl, in which he issued his autobiography in 1900, claiming that at age 12 he was digging potatoes in a field when he was lured away by the siren song of the circus. Years later, the story continued, Wing returned and bought the field. A charming tale—except none of it is true!

Much of Wing’s early life can be reconstructed through his journals, which he kept from 1858-66. The diaries detail his work as a reporter (including the time he was fired for refusing to accept ten dollars' worth of nickels as part of his weekly pay); his travails as the owner of a newspaper in Waukegan (which caused him to break out in a rash); his enormous financial success in the publication of a pamphlet on the Chicago stock yards; and his travels to Europe with the son of the owner of the Boston Journal.

Unfortunately, Wing’s diaries end when he was 24 years old—about the time he was becoming financially successful. He did, however, keep a number of scrapbooks in which he pasted all sorts of clippings on subjects that interested him, including the building of the Newberry. In Wing’s later years, he actually kept an office at the Newberry and became friends with a number of the librarians.

In 1919, two years after his death, the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing was established; today it is one of the most important collections on the history of printing in the world—and it even includes some circus material. Wing would, I think, be proud.

By Jill Gage, Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing

For Further Reading

Robert Williams, “John M. Wing.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, ed. Joseph Rosenblum (Greensboro, NC: The Gale Group, 1997), v. 187.

Robert Williams, ed., The Chicago Diaries of John M. Wing, 1865-1866 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press; Chicago: Caxton Club of Chicago, 2002).

Jill Gage, “With Deft Knife and Paste: The Extra-Illustrated Books of John M. Wing. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, vol. 9, no. 1 (March 2008): 123–24.