Books in the collection known to have been owned by Americans before 1700

Collectors are fond of classifying, for putting a book in a series gives it meaning. Series are always shifting, and lately because of the work of book historians on the history of reading and book ownership, curators have been rethinking the series into which their books may fall. Recently, in the annual report of the Library Company of Philadelphia, there was notice of a new addition to those books “in the collection known to have been owned by Americans before 1700, ” The recent acquisition put their “current tally at about thirty-six.”

Of course, it’s normal to wonder if this is a big number, small number, or just about the mean for an historic American library. It’s difficult to contextualize this number because much remains to be done to systematically identify such books. Similarly, little is known about what the order of magnitude for the total sum might be.

One conjecture about the over-all was offered 74 years ago. In 1936, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison proposed that “it would be an interesting and by no means insuperable task for one of our industrious bibliographers to make a catalogue of all the books that are known to have been in New England before 1700. My guess is that he would find about ten thousand separate titles, and that the number of copies of each work would range from several thousand of the Bible, and several hundred of the more popular works of puritan divinity down to a single copy of the less common works.” (Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 2nd ed. (New York, 1956), p. 149.)

He (or she) (a.k.a. “industrious bibliographer”) has yet to appear on the scene.

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The rare books collections at Princeton offer material for such a catalogue ranging from books owned by John Norton (1606-1663) (Princeton call number: Exov 5763.518) and Daniel Russell (d. 1679 in Charlestown)(Princeton call number: RCPXR 5959.277), down to John Cotton (1585-1652) (Princeton call number: Ex 5456.276). Only single books are associated with these names, whereas, on the other hand, a remarkable tranche of more than 40 chiefly seventeenth century works of puritan divinity come from the personal library of the Reverend Thomas Shepard (1635-1677) to which his son and heir the Reverend Thomas Shepard (1658-1685) added a few.

In addition to dated signatures appearing in the books, each and every one carries the marking depicted here on the top-edge:

The mark is the monogram ‘TS’ branded into the top edge. Appearance suggests two simple branding tools at work: a straight bar for the cross stroke and down stroke of the ‘T’, and a half-circle stroke first eastward, then turned westward to form the ‘S.’ [To be continued]

2 thoughts on “Books in the collection known to have been owned by Americans before 1700

  1. I have a book by Willard Prime, 1864, first edition. Does anyone know the value of this book. It is in very good shape. Thanks, Cathy

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