Saturday, November 6, 2010

An 1843 Almanac...Almost

This week’s book is, in fact, only part of a book.

The fashion for almanacs can be traced back to Renaissance England, but the peculiar genre gained broad popularity in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. In addition to providing handy guides for daily living (weather and harvest information, news digests, commonly used conversions and calculations, aphorisms and advice, etc.), many almanacs left space for owners to record their own journal-style entries into the calendar pages of the book. For many early Americans, then, the almanac became an essential part of daily life -- a diary, a guidebook, a reference tool, and a icon of personal identity. This also meant, of course, that they were "used up" much more fully and more rapidly than most other books.

This book is part of the legendary printer and up-state New York native Samuel Nelson Dickinson’s 1849 Boston Almanac, which was Number 8 in his annual almanac series; each issue was printed in runs of approximately 100,000 copies. Because almanacs were such small, yet heavily-used books, very few survive to the present (and very few of these are in good or clean condition). It's bound in brown cloth with a gilded decoration on the front cover (the hourglass and scythe that were typical symbols found in most almanacs).

Based at 52 Washington Street in Boston, Dickinson was famed as “one of the first successful job printers in Boston until his premature death in 1848” (Richard Wolfe, Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns. UPenn Press, 1990. 217.). He supplemented his own printing by patenting and selling devices of his own design, including Dickinson’s Improved Rotary Card Press. He also gained famed and long-lasting reputation for writing the influential A Help to Printers and Publishers and a “specimen book” of typefaces in 1842. Rollo Silver, the only scholar to write a biography of the man (“Flash of a Comet: The Typographical Career of Samuel N. Dickinson”. Studies in Bibliography 31 [1978], 68-89), described him thus:

[H]ere was a man regarded by his contemporaries as one of the best printers in the United States. In addition to his type-foundry, he owned one of the largest printing offices in the country, issued one of the first American technological journals, produced the first American periodical devoted to printing, compiled and printed a well-known series of almanacs, and was astute enough to discover and employ such men as Henry O. Houghton and the two John Wilsons. Unfortunately Dickinson’s career ended in less than twenty years, Perhaps if he had lived long enough to have become venerable, he would have received greater attention from historians of printing. [68]

While his shop, which he first opened in 1829, thrived, Dickinson’s personal life was marred by a succession of tragedies, deaths, and his own terribly poor health. In 1847, unable to keep at work due to his illness, his business of was bought up by Congressman William Damrell, in partnership with Francis Moore of Somerville. The next winter, in December 1848, shortly after setting up the copy for his 1849 Boston Almanac, Dickinson succumbed to “consumption” (tuberculosis) and died. “Constant pursuit of excellence,” summarizes Silver from numerous newspaper accounts of Dickinson’s death, “drained him physically and financially” (89). The Boston Almanac continued to be published each year up until 1894; after that point, it changed names several times, but still remained in print until 1926.

As noted, this specimen is only a fragment of its former self. Gatherings 8 through 11 survive; because it was printed in octavo, this means my copy preserves only pages 89 through 136. It was sold for Dickinson by Thomas Groom & Company on State Street and, in its complete state, would run to 142 pages, including numerous advertisements, illustrations in the calendar section, and a frontispiece engraving of a map of Boston. Online dealer Brian DiMambro currently has a complete copy, in very good condition, up for sale, and the website includes some photos of those pages missing from my copy (including the map of Boston).

My copy, while incomplete, provides a good example of the kind of makeshift binding job printers often resorted to in order to keep up with their high rate of production in the early years of machine printing. Not only are scraps of binding paper evident in the spine, but numerous threads and some bulky string are hanging loose as well. A later owner has evidently attempted to repair the binding by sewing through the cloth spine itself, but this also has come woefully loose. The sewing job is rather haphazard -- as evidenced by the stitches that enter the spine at various angles. Opening up any of the gatherings in the book reveals a tangled mess of the original strings knotted and twisted together with the stab-stitching added by the owner. Whether the extra stitches were added before or after the pages were removed from the book must remain a mystery.

The pages that survive in my copy provide the following contents: 89-126, each page presents an engraved image of a church of Boston along with accompanying history, description, and personnel for the house of worship; 127-133, “General Events”, providing brief descriptions of events in the Boston area (roughly one per week) over the course of the year (most of these focus upon the truly grotesque and horrible: exploding stoves, people getting hit by trains, young boys having their eyes pulled out by leopards at the zoo, hunting accidents, etc. -- since these pages are so few and yet so chock full of oddities, I've included them all in the photographs here); 134, an account of all of the fires that happened in the Boston area in 1842; 135, an advertisement to “literary people, publishers, and booksellers” on behalf of the printer, followed by (on 136) “specimen[s] of book type, from pica to nonpareil” that the printer can provide. There is no marginalia, though it looks like a large sticker of some kind was once attached to the pastedown inside the back cover.

Whoever has dissected this book has done what most people who used to cut up almanacs did: extracted the dated portion for a personal record. Fortunately, they have left my copy with Dickinson’s proud advertisement about his innovative typefaces (a tiny sample from his specimen book of the previous year). As an example of the work of one of nineteenth-century America’s most important printers, this is, in my view, far more important to preserve than the calendar pages of the almanac (which would have been, of course, left largely blank -- without type so the user could write in them as he or she needed). Dickinson's pride at the quality of his craftsmanship, the range of different fonts he has available, and his ability to satisfy the needs of "literary people" are hallmarks of his professionalism as a printer. And while the tattered remnants of this almanac may not, on the surface, suggest as much, the clearly heavy use his books got also stands as a testament to his skills as a seller of books of use to those "literary people".

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