Collectors, Booksellers and Libraries: Essays on Americanists and the Rare Book Market by the late William Reese
Booksellers in Americana, from Rich to Eberstadt
Part 1 of 3
This was the 1993 Pforzheimer Lecture delivered at The New York Public Library.
My topic this evening is the booksellers who have specialized in Americana. This sounds specific, but in fact is terribly vague, since there are few more amorphous words in the vocabulary of collecting than “Americana.” In its largest sense, it can mean anything from Philadelphia Chippendale highboys to baseball cards, with a good deal of what the late San Francisco bookseller, Warren Howell, used to call “three dimensional hard stuff” in between. Having been offered items ranging from a piece of rope which hung one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, to the dress sword of General Nelson Miles with a grip made from the thigh bone of the Apache chief, Cochise, I have experienced the possibilities of the word. In the more bookish sense, though, it means, most accurately, anything to do with the western hemisphere, from the publication of Columbus’ account of his encounter in 1493, until the present. More usually and chauvinistically, in this country it is taken to mean any printed works or manuscripts dealing with the area which now makes up the United States, from the first European explorations until the closing of the western frontier circa 1890.
I am an Americana dealer in the hemispherical sense, since I am one of the few in this country today to maintain a stock of early Latin Americana; but the heart of my business, and that of many dealers currently in the field, is what the Chicago bookseller and bibliographer, Wright Howes, called “U.S.iana.” While there are early and distinct traditions of collecting Latin Americana, the core of the Americana book trade and collecting began asa transatlantic exchange of books and manuscripts from Europe to the United States, and then blossomed in this country in both the hemispheric and “U.S.iana” sense. Most of the raw material for the latter, of course, has always been here. For the purposes of this evening, when I say “Americana,” I mean printed materials, books, maps, pamphlets, and broadsides or manuscripts,
in the larger hemispheric sense, and I will use Howes’ infelicitous but accurate “U.S.iana” where it applies.
Americana as a specialty has been actively dealt in for 165 years now, since the opening of Obadiah Rich’s establishment in London in 1828. There were certainly collectors of Americana prior to that, but their collecting goals were almost wholly concerned with data gathering. While such figures as Bishop White Kennett, who assembled a reference library for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the Reverend Thomas Prince of Boston, who assiduously collected local history and imprints from the time of this graduation from Harvard in the early 18th century, are important in the story of Americana, they are isolated figures operating in a comparative vacuum, remote from the Americanist tradition that begins in unbroken succession with Rich and leads to the present day. For myself, on the pleasures and prides of the antiquarian book business in general and Americana in particular is the sense of a continuity of shared knowledge and interest that is inherent in the catalogues, bibliographies and, for that matter, gossip passed on by generations linked by common interests and acquaintances. I feel a link to Obadiah Rich, not only through sympathetic feeling, but in fact through a direct chain of booksellers of different generations who knew each other well. This sense of continuity is hardly limited to the trade; indeed, the building we are meeting in and the collection housed here are one notable result of it, in the person of James Lenox and his benefactions to New York and to any researchers who came here in the past or who will come in the future.
I can offer several theories to account for the emergence of Americana as a separate bookselling discipline when it did, in the late 1820s. The first impetus, by no means limited to the bibliographical world, was the rapidly growing power, self–confidence, and self-esteem of the United States. A conviction of the specialness of the country naturally led to an urge to investigate its history, and made it desirable and necessary to gather the materials from which that history could be written. This very process was immediately responsible for creating the first specialist bookseller in the field. On a deeper level, the emergence of Americana as a separate field was part of a larger change in the world of books brought on by the Napoleonic Wars. Prior to the French Revolution, the traditional paths of book collecting focused on the book as a physical object. A primarily aristocratic group of collectors assembled books notable for traits other than their text: early printing, editions of the Bible, books printed on vellum, and the like. Those patterns certainly continued, and indeed probably reached their apogee in 19th century England. At the same time, important collections were formed with the chief goal of assembling repositories of information, but no one would have confused the entirely different modes, and ends, of collecting.
Almost all antiquarian booksellers were generalists, not specialists. In short, there was a strong distinction between books collected as icons by wealthy individuals and material accumulated for its text, sometimes by the same individuals but also by libraries, businessmen, colonizers, and clerics.
The quarter century of turmoil which engulfed Europe from 1789 to 1815 had a radical impact on book collecting. It turned the continent upside down and shook it, tumbling books and manuscripts which had been locked away for centuries out of noble houses, religious institutions, government ministries, and hitherto sacrosanct archives and libraries. After 1815 there were vast supplies of old books loose on a scale which has only been duplicated after the comparable military and economic upheaval of at the end of World War II. The potential customers had changed, too, as the collapse of the ancient regime and the Industrial Revolution created a much larger wealthy bourgeoisie. To this class, perhaps, it was natural to combine the utility of information with the aristocratic pastime of book collecting.
Out of this conjunction of historical and economic developments, I would argue, the modern rare book trade evolved. One of the first distinct specialties to emerge was Americana, and the first bookseller in the field was Obadiah Rich.
Rich was a native of Massachusetts, born in Truro in 1783. He grew up in Boston, where he was active, while still in his early twenties, in both the Massachusetts Historical Society (the oldest such institution in the United States and the first to form a research collection) and the Anthology Club (the precursor to the Boston Athenaeum). These associations brought Rich into contact with the best and the brightest of Boston, but they also impressed on him the paucity of resources in the libraries there. For example, around this time John Quincy Adams made a survey of the Harvard and Boston libraries and discovered that only a quarter of the sources cited by Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could be found in them. When Rich went to Spain as a merchant in 1809, his first foreign excursion, he spent much of his time obtaining books for his friends and institutional contacts in the United States, before the Peninsular War drove him home.
In 1816 Rich returned to Spain as consul to Valencia, and later as secretary to the embassy in Madrid. He was now in the perfect position to take advantage of the bibliographical opportunities left in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Over the next decade he amassed out of the wreckage of monasteries and noble houses an extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts relating to the Americas. It was indeed the opportunity of the century, for at no prior point had such quantities of important material been publicly available. As an aside, a similar situation occurred in Mexico in the 1850s when Juarez disestablished the Catholic Church. Most of the great monastic libraries were broken up, and the greatest private collections of early Mexican imprints, those of Andrade, Ramirez, Icazbalceta, and Leon, were quickly formed in the following decade. This same process took place in many other fields, and indeed has followed on the heels of every great convulsion of modern history. This is what the distinguished dealer, E. P. Goldschmidt, had in mind when he said that every great book has been stolen at least twice.
The turning point in Rich’s life came in 1826. An old Boston friend, Alexander Everett, was now ambassador to Spain. Everett invited Washington Irving, who had become interested in early Spanish exploration, to come visit. Within several weeks of his arrival, Irving and Rich had become such fast friends that the historian had decided to write a life of Columbus and moved into Rich’s house to use his collection. “In the curious collection of Mr. Rich,” Irving wrote, “I find materials collected together, which I should otherwise have had to hunt for through public libraries, and I have under my hand the most rare and curious works relative to the discovery of America.” Before he left, Irving had completed the bulk of his biography, a work which would be acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and Rich had crossed the line into the vocation he had been drifting toward for years. Spain was a fertile ground for buying books but a bad place to do business. His shipments were repeatedly seized by customs, despite his diplomatic status, and Rich decided to move.
In 1828 Rich arrived in London and established himself at Red Lion Square. From there in 1832 he issued the first bookseller’s catalogue devoted entirely to Americana, listing almost 500 items printed prior to 1700. As with all of Rich’s published catalogues, this was both a sale catalogue and an effort at bibliography, listing items he had seen but did not have available for sale; but he could offer such great rarities as the Enciso’s Suma de geographia (Seville, 1519) with the first sailing directions of the New World, and the 1543 laws of the Indies, which is the most expensive item, at £21. A remarkable number of the English tracts on North American settlements from the first half of the 17th century give testimony to how active Rich had been since arriving in England. This catalogue was only a beginning. Three years later he issued another catalogue cum bibliography covering the period from 1701 to 1800, and in 1844 he added a third volume covering the 19th century. These latter two volumes, called collectively Bibliotheca American Nova, are the works most often associated with his name today. At the time, they were the most useful reference to Americana, and also effective sales tools. Much of Rich’s later bookselling career was occupied with simply filling orders for books that were listed there. Rich’s publications were an effective promotion of his stock, and he seems to have flourished in business, with his main customers being the larger American libraries and affluent men of letters like Irving or William Prescott. The purchasers were almost entirely interested in the material for its informational value, even if some of his wares were exceptionally rare, and hence, valuable books. It is interesting, in this context, that institutions played a large part in the American business well before they became major factors in other fields. This is due, I think, to the dual conception of Americana rarities as both icon and text, especially prior to the era of widespread reprinting, when the original edition was generally the only edition. Rich did a brisk business in having transcripts made of manuscripts relating to America in European archives as well, a large collection of which can be found here in The New York Public Library today. What he lacked were wealthy amateur collectors who would take the field he had defined and pursue it. It was not Rich, but Henry Stevens of Vermont who brought wealthy book collectors and Americana together.
To continue to Part 2 of the essay, please follow this link.
To purchase a copy of the book, please visit the website of William Reese Company here.
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