Books and Manuscripts

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From the earliest colonial days, Americans have enjoyed and valued books and manuscripts as beautiful and significant objects themselves, beyond the pleasures of reading them. Whether inspired by the centrality of books to Western civilization or the intimacy of rare and even unique materials associated with a favorite subject or author, many Americans enjoy gathering, organizing, and displaying personal collections of books and manuscripts.

Colonial book collectors rarely considered their activities recreational; before the advent of institutional libraries, literate Americans who wished or needed to consult printed works had to purchase their own. Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, this meant buying them from Europe, either directly or through one of the few booksellers centered in Philadelphia or Boston. These early collectors were typically wealthy, educated, professional men—usually lawyers, physicians, or clergymen. While they often made discerning judgments about books' material forms—well-printed pages, carefully edited editions, handsomely bound volumes—these early collectors were more concerned with forming functional libraries than with gathering distinctive collections in the more modern sense. When American publishing and bookselling industries took root in the early nineteenth century, however, making books generally more accessible, "collecting" books emerged as a pleasurable activity distinct from simply owning them.

As Donald C. Dickinson explains in his 1986 Dictionary of American Book Collectors, the stature of a collection depends upon its quality and depth more than its sheer quantity of materials. Such qualitative stature depends upon evidence of a discriminating coherence and unity, as well as at least one piece considered rare. Such rarity might result from sheer scarcity, but often it involves other factors as well. While opinions vary about what features bestow such distinction, most collectors today value materials whose condition is unblemished by time or wear, ideally as close to its original state as possible; signatures or inscriptions by those associated with its making, such as the author, printer, or illustrator; and inscriptions or other evidence of a noteworthy provenance, or past ownership or associations.

Beyond these general aspects, the nature of the books and manuscripts that Americans have most eagerly sought has changed over time. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, most Americans shared the tastes of their European counterparts by building collections that emphasized traditional Western history, literature, and culture, sometimes focusing on works produced by the great printers of Europe's past. While few collectors were fortunate enough to own work from Gutenberg's presses, several acquired prized work by the fabled Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, early English printer William Caxton, the Dutch House of Elziver, and other notable printing establishments. By the end of the Civil War, however, influential collectors' interests shifted to Americana, reflecting emerging national sensibilities. Notably, John Carter Brown and James Lenox built impressive collections of materials pertaining to colonial and early national American history, exploration, geography, and so on.

The 1880s marked the beginning of a great "golden age" of collecting as a burgeoning number of newly wealthy industrialists and businessmen discovered the personal and cultural satisfactions of book collecting. Many of them focused on collecting materials pertaining to current or recent figures or events. This focus helped spur the new (and controversial) practice of extra-illustration, in which a collector embellished an original printed book with myriad associated material, much of it original—portraits, maps, manuscripts. The original book would then be taken apart and rebound to include the supplementary material, creating a unique copy. Excessively zealous instances of this practice are legendary; one leading New York collector, for example, extra-illustrated thirty copies of Izaac Walton's Compleat Angler, one of which grew from two volumes to ten when he added over 1,300 illustrations to it.

A more enduring legacy from this exuberant era is the prestigious book-collecting clubs founded in major cities between 1880 and 1900. These clubs offered eminent camaraderie to their members, cultural luster to their communities, and a variety of public programs to promote knowledge and appreciation of the American and Western bibliographic heritage as well as the "arts of the book"—especially beautiful bookbinding and printing. One of the first such clubs remains among the most active, New York's Grolier Club, founded in 1884. Similar clubs soon flourished in Boston (The Club of Odd Volumes), Cleveland (The Rowfant Club), Chicago (The Caxton Club), and Philadelphia (The Philobiblon Society), as well as in other cities on a less ambitious scale. In 1912, the Book Club of California was formed, completing the ranks of the most influential American book clubs still active in 2004. Unlike the others, it allowed women to be members; most of these elite book clubs eventually admitted women by the 1970s.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, collecting interests shifted again as many Americans avidly sought first editions of living authors. Shrewd writers and publishers responded by issuing a profusion of explicit "firsts," editions nearly always limited and sometimes featuring numbered copies, distinctive bindings or papers, and author signatures. In the heady economic climate of the late 1920s, prices for both these new collectors' editions and older collected materials spiraled to dizzying heights on collectors' confidence that such books were lucrative investments as well as desirable objects in their own right. The now-fabled auction of Jerome Kern's collection in 1929 garnered more than $1.7 million—a fabulous figure not surpassed for many years.

The Depression and World War II subdued the mania for book collecting, but since the 1950s a new generation of skilled and dedicated collectors has emerged. They tend to emphasize extensive bibliographic and historical knowledge of their materials, foregrounding the intellectual and scholarly pleasures of developing important, and increasingly eclectic and diverse, cultural collections. While modern collectors, like their predecessors, undoubtedly enjoy both hunting for and owning choice materials, no small part of their satisfaction comes in the personal and civic prowess that a major collection entails. In fact, a strong collection often yields a kind of cultural immortality when it eventually endows a library. Beginning in 1638 with the Reverend John Harvard's bequest of books to the new college that soon bore his name, private book collectors have endowed public institutions with substantial, sometimes nearly priceless, collections of books and manuscripts. As the names of many of the nation's most important research and academic libraries—including Henry E. Huntington, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Henry Clay Folger—testify, book collectors have played an integral role in shaping and preserving the material record of American cultural development.

See also: Collecting, Literary Societies and Middle Brow Reading


Basbanes, Nicholas A. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.

Carter, John. A B C for Book Collectors. 7th edition. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1995.

Dickinson, Donald C. Dictionary of American Book Collectors. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

The Grolier Club, 1884–1984: Its Library, Exhibitions, and Publications. New York: The Grolier Club, 1984.

Megan L. Benton

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