Collectors, Booksellers and Libraries: Essays on Americanists and the Rare Book Market by the late William Reese Part 2 of 5
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Henry Stevens was certainly the single most important Americana bookseller of the 19th century. No other dealer handled as many great books or gambled as much on his faith in his topic, although not always with success.
Stevens always managed to spend money slightly faster than he made it, and all to frequently he was forced to sell under pressure of looming debt. Still, he did more than anyone to transform the market in Americana into one dominated for a time by wealthy collectors, and he swelled the trans–Atlantic trickle of material to a steady stream.
Stevens was born in Vermont in 1819. He was so proud of his Green Mountain Boy heritage that he often attached “of Vermont” to his name, just as he defiantly listed “Blackballed Athenaeum Club” after his degrees and memberships on the title pages of his catalogues. His formal education was at Yale, where he served as librarian of the Linonian Reading Society, but a bookselling education was gained while prospecting for obscure American publications for the Washington, D.C. publisher and collector, Peter Force. Stevens began Harvard Law School, but the pull of Americana was strong. In the fall of 1844, while attending an auction in New York, he met John Carter Brown of Providence. Brown had conceived an interest in the early history of the Americas, and, after meeting in Providence, he gave Stevens a general commission to act as his agent. Stevens knew where to go.
He sold his own library at auction, packed his bags and moved to London, where the books were. Within a year Stevens had sold Brown a staggering array of early Americana, mostly obtained on credit.
Stevens could not count on Brown’s largesse alone. Within his first year in London he had developed important customers on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably James Lenox of New York, who became a major buyer of Americana about six months after Brown, and George Brinley of Hartford; this triumvirate comprised the first three great collectors of Americana in the United States. The collections of Brown and Lenox are today the bases for the two largest institutional collections of early Americana, at the John Carter Brown Library and at The New York Public Library, where Brinley’s books were dispersed in the largest American book auction of the 19th century. Others, such as Henry C. Murphy of Brooklyn and his old patron, Force, were also buying. At the same time, Stevens used his contacts in the United States to bring U.S.iana to England for the British Museum. With Rich’s accumulated stock at his disposal and enough collectors to create competition, Stevens transformed the Americana marketplace and revised prices upward accordingly. Brown, who had been in on the ground floor, groaned about “extraordinarily high prices,” but continued to buy despite his earlier resolution. Lenox, on the other hand, was not as concerned about price if he got the books he wanted. He told Stevens that when it came to real rarities, he “could at present find the five pound notes more easily than such books.” It must have been a happy day for Stevens when he heard that.
By 1847 Stevens was, in the words of John Russell Bartlett (later John Carter Brown’s librarian, but at that point a New York bookseller), “the great monopolist of American books in London.” With Rich in poor health (he died in 1850), Stevens sought to become the only game in town for
Americana, trying to make his monopoly a reality by outbidding and outspending potential competitors. He made no effort to make friends in the British book trade, where he was regarded as a Yankee upstart, refusing to take part in the well–established auction “ring” and being shamelessly slow in paying his bills. It worked well enough in the 1850s, and Stevens prospered despite the chip on his shoulder. The best printed record of his activity in this period, and another work that is both a bookseller’s catalogue and a contribution to bibliography, is his Historical Nuggets, an elaborate two volume work listing over 3000 items. Although not issued until 1862, it existed in proof sheets as early as 1857, and it shows the extraordinary wealth of material that Stevens’ persistent methods had unearthed. Ironically, the very existence of Historical Nuggets as a published work marks the decline of Stevens’ fortunes. His goal was to sell the catalogue en bloc to his customers in the States, but each in turn dragged his feet or bargained for lower prices.
Then disaster struck. The beginning of the Civil War virtually suspended the rare book business in the States for the duration. Stevens later wrote, “On the first gun of Ft. Sumter . . . clients shut up like clam shells, and began to practice those beautiful virtues of providence and economy which protected themselves and at the same time ruined me.”
Compounding his misfortune was a venture that at first had seemed to be a brilliant deal. In 1860 he bought from the bookseller Asher in Berlin the entire library of Alexander von Humboldt, some 17,000 volumes, a third of which were items not in the British Museum, for £4000. Stevens spent several years preparing an auction catalogue, then waited for the War to end sot that trans–Atlantic competition would resume. In June 1865, on the eve of the projected sale, the entire library was lost in a devastating fire at Sotheby’s warehouse.
Although he was active for another two decades and founded a distinguished firm which survives to this day, Stevens never recovered his financial equilibrium or his monopolistic position. His career until his death in 1886 was a struggle to catch up. Hard won treasures were let go, starting with the Bay Psalm Book, sold to George Brinley in 1864. Ordering it, Brinley wrote this memorable letter: “When I last had the pleasure of seeing you here you said you would sell your Bay Psalm Book for One thousand dollars (our currency, greenbacks). If you are of the same mind now I will pay the money in your order on receipt of the dirty little book upon condition the transaction is strictly private. I do not want my next friend to know that I possess it because the next step to knowledge among Yankees is ‘What did you pay for it?’”
The same copy of the Bay Psalm Book was the last one to appear at public sale, bought by Dr. Rosenbach in 1947 for $151,000 (since this paper was delivered, the duplicate Old South Church copy sold in [?] for [?]). It is now at Yale. Stevens had acquired it in a contemporary binding, but, in the taste of the day, rebound it in full gilt crushed morocco. This treatment was symptomatic of a problem which afflicted much important Americana in the eyes of the book collectors. They were “dirty little books.”
Collectors who aspired to the dignity of a “Gentleman’s Library” might compete for the rare tracts that comprised Americana, but in their eyes something had to be done to dress them up. Stevens understood this perfectly. He kept the British binders, Pratt and Bedford, busy for years. Most of the important collectors had an interest in their topic, but rarity and appearance were often as important as content.
Readers of Edith Wharton will recall that at the beginning of her novel, The House of Mirth, there is a discussion of Americana book collecting. The heroine, Lily Bart, is in the apartment of her friend, Selden, and takes advantage of his knowledge of the book world to gather some information which might be useful in her pursuit of marriage to the dull but very rich young Americana collector, Mr. Percy Gryce. Lily says to Selden, “’And Americana—do you collect Americana?’ Selden stared and laughed. ‘No, that’s rather out of my line. I’m not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of.’ She made a slight grimace.
‘And Americana are horribly dull, I suppose?’ ‘I should fancy so, except to the historian. But your real collector values a thing for its rarity. I don’t suppose the buyers of Americana sit up reading them all night. Old Jefferson Gryce certainly didn’t.’ She was listening with keen attention. ‘And yet they fetch fabulous prices, don’t they? It seems so odd to want to pay a lot for an ugly badly–printed book that one is never going to read! And I suppose most of the owners of Americana are not historians either?’ ‘No; very few historians can afford to buy them. They have to use those in the public libraries or in private collections. It seems to be the mere rarity which attracts the private collector.’”
This piece of dialogue, however unfair it may be in characterizing those interested in Americana, puts its finger squarely on a central issue raised by the emergence of the field as a separate collecting discipline. Mrs. Wharton was not the first sardonic observer to question whether the acquirers of the raw materials of American history were motivated by scholarship or misplaced pride. It was easy to assume that Americana collectors did not read their treasures when the consistently most expensive book in the field in the 19th century was the Eliot Indian Bible, the most important product of the first press in the British colonies, but unfortunately written in Algonquian.
The value of the Eliot Bible to all but a few linguists was purely as an icon, and this was certainly the motivation of many collectors. Whatever their reasons, some of these acquisitors founded great libraries. It is likely that Mrs. Wharton, familiar with Rhode Island society, had John Nicholas Brown, the son of John Carter Brown, in mind when she created the hapless Percy Gryce, blindly continuing his father’s book collection as a family tradition. Almost as she wrote the words, the John Carter Brown Library was being given to Brown University as a public institution. Americana booksellers have always been engaged in a balancing act between their material as historical evidence and its appeal, or lack of it, in the more traditional bibliophilic sense of physical beauty.
This certainly explains many of the physical alterations made to the books themselves in terms of bindings. This may also explain why, more than most fields, bibliography has so often sprung from the book trade. A substantial number of the most important reference works in Americana are by booksellers, whether formal bibliographies, sales catalogues, or collection catalogues, growing out of their efforts. Is this a desire to justify the historical importance of the material, or a desire to add as many things as possible to the rolls of collectible books? Both of these motives guide the booksellers, who thus played a role in shaping the field physically and intellectually.
Let us turn to Joseph Sabin, the leading Americana dealer of the late 19th century, and a bookseller better remembered today for bibliography than bookselling. His Bibliotheca Americana, or a dictionary of books relating to America, lists over 100,00 items and remains an important reference tool, although it is so far from exhaustive that the ongoing habit of European booksellers of citing items as “Not in Sabin” should fool no one. Sabin was born in England and apprenticed to the book trade in Oxford before coming to the United States in 1848. Throughout his career he oscillated between bookselling and auctioneering, and in the latter role he catalogued several important collections of U.S.iana in the early 1850s which directed his interest as an Americana specialist. In 1859 he issued his first proposal for a massive bibliography to encompass all printed material relating to the Americas. The Civil War delayed the project, but in 1867, amid an active business and numerous auctions, Sabin issued the first number of the Bibliotheca Americana. In the introduction he states that he interpreted the topic “with a wide meaning.” As Thomas Adams has noted, Sabin considered anything to be Americana which could be sold as such.
The best examples of this, perhaps, are theological works written by ministers in New England but published in England. Sabin concluded that they belonged in the bibliography because “at all events, they are books sought for with avidity and at high prices by the collectors of ‘Americana,’ and if only for that reason, have a right to appear here.” He labeled such books, “inferential Americana.”
Until his demise from overwork in 1881, Sabin was a nonstop cataloguing machine, preparing most of the major auction sales of several decades in Americana and more general areas, as well as carrying the Bibliotheca Americana to the middle of the letter “M.” The project was then taken over by the young bookseller, Wilberforce Eames, who carried it to the entries for Captain John Smith before leaving the trade to work for the Lenox Library.
From 1892 to 1924 the remainder of the project hung in limbo while Eames dealt with his manifold duties at the Lenox, and later, the American history division of The New York Public Library. A team led by R. W. G. Vail finished Sabin’s Bibliotheca in 1935. Sabin, like many booksellers who followed him, saw bibliography as both a useful reference and a sales tool. His pragmatic approach focused as closely on more recent, U.S.iana books, as on the earlier European Americana which was the primary interest of Rich and Stevens. His bibliography showed an interest in local history, Western Americana, American natural history, and a legion of other possible genres within the larger topic. His diligence paid off in his business and in the field of Americana in general. From 1867 on, many more private collectors entered the field, a number of larger institutions stepped up purchasing, and the market boomed. Sabin was clearly its leader, organizing auctions, carrying on the bibliography, and building the largest import/export business in the field, in both Americana and American publications. Among the auction sales conducted by him were those of the libraries of Thomas Field, William Menzies, bookseller William Gowans, and John C. Rice of Chicago. His final triumph was the George Brinley sale, beginning in 1879. Sabin presided over the sale of the collection’s greatest rarities in the first three sessions, succumbing a week after the third sale ended in 1881.
By the end of the 19th century, there were a number of booksellers in the United States who had followed Sabin’s lead in making Americana their stock in trade. No single dealer could dominate the expanding market, but one firm, Dodd, Mead, was certainly the most significant force in the market around the turn of the century. This is surprising to those who think of Dodd, Mead as publishers, but from 1880 to 1910 they also ran the largest rare book operation in the United States. Originally specialists in literary materials, they backed into Americana in 1886 by taking on consignment a number of books from Henry N. Stevens, who was trying to raise money from his father’s book–rich but cash–poor estate. The staff of the firm at the time was a roster of future greats: besides Robert Dodd, the managing partner, there were George H. Richmond and William E. Benjamin, later independently two of the leading booksellers of New York; James F. Drake, who went on to found the famous literature firm; and a sixteen year old errand boy, George D. Smith.
All of these but Drake were to deal extensively in Americana, especially Smith, who was the leading figure in rare book dealing in the United States from the Augustin Daly sale in 1900 until his death at the age of fifty in 1920. Indeed, as Henry Huntington’s agent, Smith probably purchased more rare Americana in a shorter period of time than anyone. The young Smith must have watched carefully when the collector, E. Dwight Church, came in to the Broadway store of Dodd, Mead and purchased the bulk of their catalogue 14, which consisted entirely of the Stevens consignment. Church remained the Dodd, Mead’s best customer until 1905, when the impending publication of his collection catalogue caused him, as similar monuments have affected s many collectors, to stop buying.
Dodd, Mead published Church’s catalogue in 1907, the year before the collector’s death and the collection’s en bloc transfer via Smith to Huntington in 1908. Since the books were almost wholly supplied by Dodd, Mead, the catalogue is also a good chronicle of the firm’s activities. It is a landmark in bibliographical description, and still a primary reference in early Americana; but it was also the firm’s swan song, and Dodd, Mead left the antiquarian book business in 1910, outdone by its well–trained employees. Perhaps the most important Americana specialist of the first half the 20th century was Lathrop C. Harper. Harper dealt in two distinct fields, incunabula and Americana. Born into a well-to-do New York merchant family, a remote cousin of the publisher, Harper, Lathrop entered the book business in 1887 at age twenty as an employee of his older brother, Francis, who had begun a general used book store in 1881. Francis did have a particular interest in American history, but it seems to have expressed itself through publishing. Francis commissioned the historian Elliott Coues to produce some of the first scholarly editions of important travel narratives such as Lewis and Clark, and Pike, and published important manuscript accounts of Western exploration. Lathrop seems to have taken charge of the antiquarian end of the business and prepared book catalogues.
In 1911 Francis retired from business, while Lathrop moved uptown and across the street from The New York Public Library, which had just opened its doors. Here he had convenient access to the rare Americana of the former Lenox Library and to his good friend, Wilberforce Eames, now the chief of the American History Division. The quiet, scholarly Eames, having spent his early career in the antiquarian business, always had a special affinity for booksellers, and many younger Americana experts located themselves around the library to be near its resources and his helpful knowledge.
Harper, ever gracious to younger members of the trade, came to play a similar role of mentor in later years. In 1912 Harper married Mabel Urner, who was just beginning her own career writing a syndicated series, “The Married Life of Helen and Warren.” This weekly piece, very successful in its day, appeared for the next three decades and made Mrs. Harper a wealthy woman, as she chronicled the fictional and sometimes semi–fictional adventures of a bon vivant married couple who somewhat resembled the Harpers. Inveterate diners–out, evidently even for breakfast, the real–life Mabel and Lathrop never bothered to have the stove hooked up in their Gramercy Place apartment, and used the unplugged refrigerator to shelve Mrs. Harper’s excess shoes. The Harpers’ frequent trips to Europe for book hunting and sightseeing were chronicled in such episodes as “An Appalling Discovery at a Haughty London Hotel.” Although Harper never spoke any language but English he bought much of his stock on these trans–Atlantic excursions. When asked how he could deal in so many books he couldn’t read, he said, “I knew the word for ‘imperfect’ in seventeen languages.”
To be continued...
To purchase a copy of the book, please visit the website of William Reese Company here.
COLLECTORS, BOOKSELLERS, AND LIBRARIES: ESSAYS ON AMERICANISTS AND THE RARE BOOK MARKET.
Reese, William S.:
New Haven: Overland Press, 2018. viii,,321,pp. Publisher's black cloth backstrip and decoratively-patterned boards, spine gilt. New. In original pictorial dust jacket. Item #WRCAM54130
A wonderful compilation of essays by the owner of this firm, and the man Gary Kurutz has described as the "dean of Americana dealers." This collection of essays addresses two distinct themes. The first part is devoted to notable figures in the world of printed and manuscript Americana, including collectors, booksellers, bibliographers, and librarians. The second section assembles a series of essays by Mr. Reese covering the contemporary rare book market, from World War II to the present day. All of these essays draw upon Mr. Reese's extensive experience as an antiquarian bookseller over the last five decades. Essential reading for Americanists, bibliophiles, book dealers, librarians, and anyone else interested in the modern book trade.
Text: The above essay is published with the permission of William Reese Company as a tribute to ILAB bookseller William Reese.
Images: William Reese Company