Collecting in 19th Century America

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Leary’s bookstore stocked used and antiquarian books, illustration on rear pastedown of blankbook issued by the firm ca. 1880. Call number for blankbook: (MSS) C0938 (no. 62)

The survival of books occurs under contested conditions. In fact, you could say that the whole life cycle of books - creation, production, distribution, use, survival - occurs under contested conditions. Clearly then if the book historian has any job, his or her job is to investigate and understand those contested conditions. Since my work as a curator is chiefly about insuring the survival of books, I’m curious about the back-story to my work, namely, whatever relates to the story over the years regarding the survival of books and the contests surrounding survival.

Lately, I have been trying to understand the world of book collectors and dealers in the United States during the middle of the 19th century. I’ve picked those years because I’ve discovered that they represent a “take off stage” in the arc of the practice of bibliophily in this country. A number of bibliophilic writers maintain that in the US during the period from ca 1885 to ca 1930 there occurred sustained high practice in book collecting, often referred to at the “Golden Age.” It was an age marked by such titan collectors as Henry Huntington and J. Pierpont Morgan, funded by wealth produced the American economy, which by 1900 had become the world’s largest, a position it has held down to the present. It was also an age marked by an unprecedented out-pouring of collectible goods from England and other countries of Europe. One factor precipitating the English flow was the change in the entailment laws, instituted to help English nobles cover the shortfall in income resulting from reduced agricultural production of their lands. The change allowed them to sell manorial property, and the art and books therein were among the first to go. Other factors, such as sales done to meet rising death duties, sustained this flow for years to come. The general contours of the “Golden Age” are pretty well known - there are a handful of histories about this period; there are memoirs of dealers, collectors, accounts of auctions, in goodly abundance. In fact, the period has been institutionalized by the several collector’s clubs founded then and still surviving, the most famous of which is the Grolier Club in New York. The modern era in special collections in university libraries traces back to this period, as does that evidently uniquely American collegiate, bibliophilic institution, the undergraduate book-collecting contest.

My interest is in those years just before this so-called “Golden Age” for several reasons. I have a number of questions: Books, and collectors, and money were around before the t the so-called “Golden Age,” so why didn’t it occur earlier? We know the mores and methods of the generations of the “Golden Age,” so what did their predecessors do that was the same or different? What were the contests relating to the survival of books during these mid-century years? Unlike the story of the Golden Agers, there’s no place to turn to for an explanation of these mid-century years. With no place to turn, I decided to answer these questions on my own.

My hunt for the answers to these questions required and still requires that I look at a number of sources: chiefly, whatever documents I can find by collectors, dealers, or libraries of these years, or about the collectors, dealers and libraries of the mid 19th century. Consequently, I am reading the following:

• newspaper accounts of auction sales, collector’s libraries, stories about the book trade (such as W.C. Prime’s account of bookseller William Gowan’s cellar), etc.

• book trade journals, such as Joseph Sabin’s The American Bibliopolist (1869-1877). [Some vol. available at Google Books .]

• auction catalogues, in particular their front matter, or owner’s annotations. - the Poinier copy of the Rice catalogue (1870) is my best example.

• correspondence - precious little remains in the way of dealer’s correspondence (T. H. Morrell, and then a few others)

• diaries of collectors - see William Templeton Strong

In short, I’m on the hunt for whatever I can find as evidence. Both findings and evidence are very scattered, discontinuous, and scarce. Already emerging are some fragmentary particulars, which I group into three parts as follows: 1) regarding values and mores, 2) further themes and questions centering chiefly around norms, hierarchies, and the notion of gift, and 3) themes and questions yet to be investigated much further, especially the roles of the various agents

Values and norms of 19th cent collectors

• To be “Choice and Select” — “William Gowans, a bookseller who knew American literature better than most of his colleagues, was critical of [Albert Gorton] Greene’s ‘prodigious congregation of dirty second hand hymn books.’ [footnote 1] ‘To put them into a private collection is like choking an elegantly furnished parlor with a quantity of broken and dilapidated furniture, filling up space, and so obscuring the useful and ornamental piece.” [footnote 2]. These quotes from page 16 of Roger E. Stoddard, “C. Fiske Harris, Collector of American Poetry and Plays,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Volume 57, First Quarter, 1963, 14-32.

• Understanding value — Gowans further criticizes Greene: “Had the judge been a more liberal buyer, his books to-day would many of them have realized ten times the cost. He seemed to think a rise in the price of any book was preposterous; and such a conviction prevented him from making many valuable acquisitions.” — page 17 in Roger E. Stoddard, “C. Fiske Harris, Collector of American Poetry and Plays,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Volume 57, First Quarter, 1963, 14-32. Note: preposterous = contrary to the order of nature, or to reason or common sense.

• Value of the quotidian — In March 1875, C. Fiske Harris sent out copies of his Index to American Poetry and Plays in the Collection of C. Fiske Harris (Providence: Printed for Private Distribution, 1874). It listed more than 4,000 volumes of poetry, plays, and songs written by Americans. William Cullen Bryant remarked to Harris “Your work, Index to American Poetry and Plays, has amazed me by showing me what multitudes of persons on our side of the Atlantic have wasted their time in writing verses in our language.” [footnote 3]

• Many vs. the few —- “The Astor Library is truly a noble institution. … I hope it will be taken care of, but in the hands of the millions it will soon be tarnished. Books fare bad enough in a College library but when thrown open to Tom, Dick & Harry in a such a City as N[ew] Y[or]K. Heaven save the mark …” John Carter Brown to John Russell Bartlett. 15 December 1853. Papers of John Russell Bartlett, JCB.

“I would prefer a half dozen gems of the first water books beyond criticism, to a cartload of unimportant books - A sale of such richness in Americana may never take place again.” - John Nicholas Brown (age 23) to John Russell Bartlett. 7 January 1884. From Dresden, re: the Henry C. Murphy sale, 3-8 March 1884. Papers of John Russell Bartlett, JCB.

Themes and questions relating to norms, hierarchies, and the notion of gift

•With autograph collecting during the nineteenth century there was the assumption that they had an almost magical utility for mirroring directly the soul of the writer. Another way of putting this idea is that autographs offered an intimacy not reproducible any other way. Poe satirized the credulity of those who believed this proposition. That he satirized testifies to how widespread this belief was. See his “Autography” in Graham’s Magazine (Nov. 1841- Jan. 1842). Clearly at stake here are questions relating to norms and hierarchies: what’s collectible and what’s not, and what categories validate something as collectible.

•More on 19th century thinking about collecting — There is evidence that some then considered collecting to be a process of recovery - the process of collocating what belongs together because there’s a pattern which it is our task to come to realize. This is comparable to intuiting Providence by careful study of nature and nature’s patterns. The implication is that collecting is akin to a moral duty. This was the kind of thinking behind a college collecting publications of alumni, or locals putting together the works of a town’s literary lights. Giving a material form to “genius” was considered the right thing to do. The lowly physical acts of gathering material objects served higher, perhaps spiritual purposes.

•Clearly there are hierarchies among and embedded in collectibles - how do these get established, why are they necessary? I suggest one answer to the question about why hierarchies are necessary — it is because of the “gift economy” aspect of collecting, that is, collecting is done inside an exchange economy, but collecting is not, in the end, really about exchange of cash for goods, but goods for esteem. In a gift economy, the point of exchange is not to tie off relationships, to complete them, but rather to re-enforce them, to continue their binding nature.

•One very important aspect of the “gift economy” was literal exchanges between collectors. I am not precisely sure what all was involved here, but it seems to involve passing one’s duplicates to another in exchange for their duplicates. In autograph collecting, duplicate had a special meaning, yet to be fully determined.

•Genesis story - It seems that by the by the end of the century, it was a commonplace for a collector to have a “genesis story” - some sort of narrative which served to mark out the beginning of the endeavor. Another variant on the genesis story was the tale of the first practitioner, such as the Rev. William Sprague being the first collector of autographs in the US. (How could that be proved?) Such a genesis story may not be the real genesis story, but whatever was invented served the need. Where did the need come from? Perhaps as basic as having an individual having personal name in order to function in a society. The genesis story expanded by century’s end into the collector’s memoir. Early memoirs such as Henry Stevens’s is fraught with struggles with “egoism” or “egotism,” which I take to mean a kind of behavior able to undermine the “gift economy” or “love of man” (philanthropic) aspect of collecting.

•The making of privately illustrated or unique books was considered noble because it was creating a kind of gift. Many “illustrators” intended to leave them to their children as an important legacy. The gift economy was in high contrast to the growing capitalist economy of the nineteenth century.

The dictates of the gift economy may be another reason why Princeton librarian E. C. Richardson used the term “Kept Books.” Valuable gifts were included in that group, so the term connoting the role of gifts as books kept as bonds of relationship.

Also under the dictates of the gift economy, “exhibition” takes on another meaning. It is the making visible of what was or is invisible — the outward showing of an inward bond. And, so the exhibition room in a library is not only where you can see rarities, it is also a court of good will.

Note: change later overlays earlier terminology — the term “Treasure Room” — the term in wide use by the 1920s — is from the Greek “thesauros” meaning store or hoard. The denotation is possession rather than a state of being (viz. exhibiting, keeping).

Yet to be investigated much further — the roles of the agents

•Roles of those connected with the process of collecting and, in particular, those who created dialog about collecting — in particular, the <> Role of dealers (such as, Joseph Sabin and his American Bibliopolist, or Charles De F. Burns, who published American Antiquarian: a quarterly journal devoted to the interests of collectors of autographs, paper money, portraits, &c.) <> Role of public interpreters (such as Charles Dibdin, Herman Ludewig (bibliographer), John Russell Bartlett, or the newspaper reporters who wrote chiefly about the public auctions) <> Role of auctioneers (goods were pushed and pulled into the American market from abroad — dealers imported from London and auction these goods — carrying inventory over time was costly, so the auction created a sense of abundance without long term costs — how did they calibrate what to sell? Perhaps the sale of Charles Lamb’s books in New York in 1848 is a useful case study) <> Role of collectors (gossip that they exchanged with each other)

What does role mean here? There’s more than an exchange of goods. Both as a providing agent and an exchange agent for expert information, these men brought to light what had, so the story went, been hidden in darkness and they showed its relevance for current felt needs, such as keeping up with the “aesthetic wave” or preserving what was vanishing, such as the wave of collecting following on after two of the most important last of the Revolutionary generation, Adams and Jefferson, died in 1826. That is how the story went at that time. I sense a story hidden yet deeper, based in a value system understood at the time, but only uncertainly understood today.


1 Gowans. Catalogue of American Books, for Sale at the Affixed Prices, New York, 1864, No. 27, p.26

2 Idem.

3 Bryant’s letter of 12 Mar. 1875, quoted by John C. Stockbridge in The Anthony Memorial: A Catalogue of the Harris Collection of American Poetry with Biographical and Bibliographical Notes, Providence, 1886, p. xi.

1 Comment

I've devoured your post! I'll be back for more. We have several overlapping interests. I'm also a curator, but for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

I've been working to establish an American Book Trade Index, but it hasn't gained much traction. So far it is only a drop in the bucket, but there are 1700+ images of pre-1900 American Book Trade items at the American Book Trade Index on flickr.com. Flickr is a membership website, but it is free and all of these images are searchable for titles, descriptions, notes, etc. At least as many as I've made notes for.

Also, I have a blog on similar subjects called Exile Bibliophile . The link of the title should work.

Good Luck! I'll be watching with interest.

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