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Loeb at First Sight: The Classics Come in Red and Green

Since 1912, the Loeb Classical Library has brought Latin and Greek literature to millions. The books’ distinctive, restrained design is part of their enduring appeal.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley, Superscript September 17, 2013

As a student at Harvard, James Loeb (1867–1933) wanted to become a classical archaeologist until one of his professors warned him that the field was not welcoming to Jews. He joined his family’s business instead. It was only decades later, when he was a philanthropist living in Europe, that he hit upon the idea that would make him the great democratizer of classical studies. 

The idea was simple: Why not publish a series of books that made Latin and Greek literature accessible to everyone, not just scholars?

James Loeb wanted books to fit easily in "a gentleman's coat pocket." Photo by Michael Rossi, ©HUP

Two years later, in 1912, the first volumes in the Loeb Classical Library appeared, and they’ve been appearing ever since. There are now 520 of the little red and green books in print (red for Roman authors, green for Greek). Loebs are enduring and ubiquitous, gracing the shelves of every self-respecting research library and college bookstore. In popular culture they’ve become a visual shorthand for higher learning (and perceived high social status), showing up in Martha Stewart’s decorating schemes and Mr. Burns’s library in The Simpsons. Every once in a while, someone calls Harvard University Press, the publisher, and orders the entire set for their home library.

James Loeb’s intention was to publish all that was important in classical literature—from Aeschylus to Vitruvius—for the delight and edification of a wide audience. Inspired by similar French books he’d seen, he chose a parallel-text format, with Latin or Greek on the left page and an English translation facing it on the right. This would be a crucial aid for readers whose command of ancient languages was shaky (or nonexistent).

The volumes would need to be portable, “of a size that would fit in a gentleman’s pocket,” Loeb wrote. They would have to be affordably priced. And the English versions would not be stilted cribs but fluid translations, “in themselves real pieces of literature.”

On every score but the last, the Loeb Classical Library has hewed to its founder’s vision. (The clunky, bowdlerized translations of old have gotten much better, happily.) Designers & Books recently spoke to Tim Jones, director of design and production at Harvard University Press, about the history and appeal of Loebs. (The conversation has been edited and condensed.)

The pocket-sized books with red and green jackets have become instantly recognizable. Images ©HUP

Amanda Hurley: When did the red and green covers debut, and who decided it would be red for Latin and green for Greek? Is it possible that the logic was simply R = red/Roman, GR = green/Greek?
Tim Jones:
To the best of our knowledge, they were red and green at the start. But there’s no question there have been outliers. I’ve seen one that’s white with red trim. There was one, from the Thirties, that instead of having Greek keys [on the cover], has swastikas. That was long before we were involved!* There are a lot of the things about the Loebs that make me wish I could pick the minds of the people who first put them together, since we just don’t know. Designers do this kind of thing all the time—green for Greek, red for Roman. Some people think of green as a Hellenic color, but I don’t think that’s academically verifiable.

AH: Was the Greek key pattern always there?
The Greek key is even on Loeb 1, on the hard cover. It’s on the spine and the top and bottom, stamped in gold. On the front are the LCL letters, which we still stamp.

AH: What about the fonts?
The main font now is Zeph, named after Zeph Stewart, a Harvard classicist and longtime trustee of the Loeb Classical Library who died in 2007. In the '80s, Harvard University Press took over production from Heinemann. We didn’t have the typefaces. You can see the difference between the books that are just scans versus the newer ones that are typeset. They worked with a typographer and our main compositor to match the original wood and metal versions. Zeph is as close a match as we can imagine.

The cover display type is actually Perpetua. Everything else is in Zeph. As far as we can tell from early editions, Perpetua or a font very similar to it was used for display.

AH: As a designer, how would you describe the achievement of the Loeb library?
It’s fascinating how well thought out it is. For such a small trim size, it has such a dense amount of styles. Our current electronic sample page set is over 300 pages to show all the styles. The fact that someone—it wasn’t done all at once—but someone accounted for that much flexibility in a really elegant, classical way, even today people would have a tough time achieving such a thing.

The other part is that in 1912, someone created a brand in an academic book. We’ve since done a few other facing-page translation series and are embarking on a new one. They’re all modeled on the Loeb.

*Editor’s note: Loebs were for decades jointly published by HUP and Heinemann, but printed in the UK by Heinemann. HUP became the sole publisher in the 1980s.

October 20, 2013 - Update Update from Harvard University Press:
Friends, Romans . . . next month the price of Loeb Classical Library volumes will be raised for the first time in many years. If you've had your eye on any then now’s a smart time to add them to your shelf . . .


Styles have changed slightly over the 100 years of the series' existence, but its overall visual impact has remained the same. Photo by Michael Rossi, ©HUP


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