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Robert ‘Aitch’ Aitchison loved books and art

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Sep. 17, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

He was known simply as “Aitch.”

Wichita artist and bibliophile Robert Aitchison helped preserve the history of Kansas and the world. He also nurtured some of the most talented artists Wichita has produced, co-founding the Wichita Art Association.

He designed the original Phillips 66 shield logo and a series of maps sponsored by the Mentholatum Co.For more than four decades, Aitchison worked at McCormick-Armstrong Co., a Wichita printing firm. His interests encompassed cartography, history, fine painting, collecting and business. His artistry included oil, woodcuts and etching.

“He was an art leader, organizer of men and societies and in addition to all of this, a business leader,” the Wichita Eagle reported at the time of his death in May 1964.

Aitchison was born Dec. 5, 1887, in Columbus in Cherokee County, in the far southeastern corner of the state.

His artistic talent developed early. He was a graduate of Albert T. Reid School of Art in Topeka and in 1908 took a job as an artist at the Chicago Tribune after attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He later worked for the San Antonio Express and organized an advertising agency, opened an art studio and freelanced in Denver.

In 1919, when Aitchison was 32, McCormick-Armstrong Press began courting him to come to Wichita.

“Our idea in getting you here is to build up the direct-advertising service part of our business,” company vice president C.H. Armstrong wrote on Oct. 18, 1919.

In 1920, he moved to Wichita, where he established the creative department for McCormick-Armstrong.

Besides Phillips 66, some of his longtime customers included Kansas Gas & Electric and Farmers and Bankers Life Insurance.

Aitchison also was an avid historian. He collected some of the earliest known printed items in the world – including a Buddhist prayer printed in Japan between 764 and 770 AD and a gospel printed in the Delaware Indian language by Jotham Meeker in 1837. It was printed on the first press brought into Kansas territory.

Aitchison served as president of the Kansas State Historical Society and was a judge on the American Institute of Graphic Arts 50 Books Show. He held membership for years in the Typophiles, Historic Wichita, the Artists Guild and the Wichita Art Museum. He was a founder of the Wichita Bibliophiles.

His state historical maps for Mentholatum were widely distributed to schools throughout the United States.

Much of his map and book collection is housed in Special Collections at the Ablah Library at Wichita State University.

He was a friend of famed inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller, who stayed with Aitchison while he designed the Dymaxion House, a domed structure often described more like a flying saucer than a home. Fuller’s project was to be produced by the Beech aircraft plant following World War II, but it never took off and only two production models were ever produced.

He was also a friend of internationally-known sculptor and Kansas native Bruce Moore.

“Wichita may never have another man like him.” wrote the Eagle when Aitchison died in 1964.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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