Arents Collection

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Arents Collection

"It is impossible to print on tobacco leaves," George Arents Jr. (1875–1960) told his fellow book collectors at the Grolier Club in 1941, although he found that the plant occupied many of the leaves of literature (Arents 1942). The pursuit of literary and artistic tobacco leaves was for Arents a lifelong endeavor.


Taking the lead from his uncle, Major Lewis Ginter, a man who "knew the art of living," Arents began his collection of rare books on tobacco in 1898. Major Ginter was an important figure in the history of tobacco in America, and his name lives on in the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens that were established on the grounds of his distinguished Richmond home, Bloemendaal Farm. In 1875 he became a partner in Allen and Ginter, a Richmond tobacco firm. Allen and Ginter pioneered the use of Virginia tobacco in their cigarettes at a time when other manufacturers used more expensive imported tobacco and they were one of the first tobacco firms to distribute collectible cigarette cards with their products. In 1890 the firm was incorporated into the American Tobacco Company. In 1896, during the summer between his junior and senior years at Columbia University, Arents followed the family tradition and joined the American Tobacco Company. In 1900 he became a founding member of the board of directors of the American Machine & Foundry Company (AMF) and its subsidiary the International Cigar Machinery Company. Arents served on the board of AMF for over fifty years, during which time the company emerged as the world's largest manufacturer of cigar- and cigarette-making equipment.

By his own account, his uncle had encouraged the young Arents to develop a hobby that would engage his interest beyond work and family. A casual dinner conversation with William Evarts Benjamin, a family friend and a dealer of rare books and manuscripts, provided the stimulus, and the following day Arents purchased his first book on tobacco. In his autobiographical account on book collecting Arents noted that the first book he purchased was the 1840 edition of A Pinch of Snuff by Benson Earle Hill.

When he began collecting, Arents acquired items that described the plant and its products, manufacture, and trade from the European's first encounter with the plant in the early sixteenth century through the twentieth century. Soon the scope of the collection widened to include texts that made incidental references to tobacco or smoking. Any book, manuscript, image, or object related to tobacco met the criteria to be included in the collection, although Arents pursued only the most rare and interesting items. He was partial to acquiring previously unpublished manuscripts of poetry and prose by important English authors. He also had a penchant for association copies—those copies of important items owned by individuals who were influential in their own right. He took his collecting to extreme lengths, at one point making the transatlantic crossing to London solely to acquire Sir Francis Bacon's own copy of Counterblaste to Tobacco by King James I.

The Collection

Like most book collectors Arents evaluated his own collection in terms of its high spots. It is easier to describe the important books that are not in the collection, chiefly because they do not mention tobacco or smoking, than it is to list the many works of important authors, artists, statesmen, and scientists that are represented. The list ranges from Martin Waldseemüller's account of the second voyage of Amerigo Vespucci in Cosmographiae introductio (1507), where the first published reference to tobacco is found, to the American author George Ade's wistful letter to Victor Richard Rubens, on 27 May 1928, in which he blames an illness for robbing him of the pleasure of smoking. As for the missing items, the first folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623) is not in the collection. Arents was fond of pointing out that he wished that it were, although Shakespeare's works contain not a single reference to tobacco or smoking. Even so, the collection is inspiring in its diversity and depth.

The collection was exhibited at the Library of Congress in 1938, and the press reported that the exhibit contained 360 different titles in seventeen languages. The books were arranged into fourteen different categories, including illustrated botanical books; the history of tobacco in the Americas; ceremonials, rituals, and the mythology of tobacco; the European discovery of tobacco; therapeutic medical texts; the tobacco controversy; treatises on the legislation, importation, and taxation of tobacco; the manufacture and commerce of tobacco products; and books relating to smoking and snuffing with descriptions and depictions of all the required equipment and devices. The George Arents Collection also includes selected examples of containers and the devices designed to hold or burn tobacco products. The turn-of-the-century tobacconist's trade sign, the cigar store Indian, is also represented.

In 1942 Arents agreed to give his collection to the New York Public Library. During the years that followed, his books, accompanied by their librarian Sarah Augusta Dickson, moved from the library at Hillcrest, his home in Rye, New York, to the specially prepared George Arents Tobacco Room in the library's building on Fifth Avenue. Upon his death in 1960, he willed the collection to the library with funds sufficient to purchase books, manuscripts, literary material, objects, and rarities of a character appropriate to its development and improvement. Comprised of works from Arents's own collection as well as materials subsequently acquired by the library's curators, the collection is available to researchers in the Special Collections of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

See Also American Tobacco Company; Connoisseurship.



Arents, George, Jr. Books, Manuscripts and Drawings Relating to Tobacco from the Collection of George Arents, Jr.: On Exhibition at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., April 1938. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938.

——. Early Literature of Tobacco. Washington, D.C.: Private printing for distribution at the Library of Congress, 1938. Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Library of Congress of books from the author's library.

——. Tobacco Leaves. New York?: G. Arents, 1942. An address made at the Grolier Club, New York City, on 27 November 1941.

——. Book Collecting as I Have Found It. New York: New York Public Library, 1954.

Bain, John, comp. Tobacco in Song and Story. New York: New York Public Library, 1953. Reproduced from an extra-illustrated volume in the George Arents Collection that includes more than 200 original pen and ink sketches by various artists, including Rube Goldberg.

Crowquill, Alfred [Alfred Henry Forrester]. A Few Words about Pipes, Smoking & Tobacco. New York: New York Public Library, 1947. Now in the Arents Tobacco Collection, this work was edited from an unpublished manuscript (c. 1840) written and illustrated by Alfred Henry Forrester.

Dickson, Sarah. Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library, 1954. Reprinted from the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 1953–1954.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Jan Van Hunks: Edited from the Original Manuscripts by John Robert Wahl. New York: New York Public Library, 1952. Comprises a facsimile and a transcription of the author's manuscript draft of The Ballad of Jan Van Hunks, transcriptions of an early draft of the first part in the Duke University Library, and of the final fair hand copy in the British Library.

Spinden, Herbert Joseph. Tobacco Is American: The Story of Tobacco before the Coming of the White Man. New York: New York Public Library, 1950.

Tobacco: A Catalogue of the Books, Manuscripts, and Engravings Acquired since 1942 in the Arents Tobacco Collection at the New York Public Library, from 1507 to the Present. New York: New York Public Library, 1958–1969. Incomplete in 10 parts, the cataloging is continued in the New York Public Library's online catalog at <>.

Tobacco: Its History Illustrated by the Books, Manuscripts, and Engravings in the Library of George Arents, Jr. New York: Rosenbach Company, 1937–1952.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, in Four Acts, as Originally Written. New York: New York Public Library, 1956. Comprises a transcription of the first draft of the play from the author's manuscript of Acts I–II in the George Arents Collection and Acts III–IV in the British Library. Also includes facsimiles of several typescripts (with the author's manuscript emendations, deletions, and so forth) in the George Arents Collection.

cigarette cards paper trading cards sometimes featuring sports personalities or movie stars packaged with cigarettes and offered as an incentive for purchase.

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