Sunday, January 29, 2012

Elephants and Camels From an Early American Book Empire

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the worthwhile goal of owning an example imprint from specific, influential printers, such as the House of Elsevir. This week’s book picks up that theme again, though in this case the book in question is from the family of an important early publisher rather than printer.

While Ben Franklin might be the more familiar name as a major early American printer-publisher, the name of radical patriot and newspaperman Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831; shown above in a portrait owned by the American Antiquarian Society) is perhaps just as important though perhaps less well known. Beside printing revolutionary newspapers – many of which were the first of their kind in the colonies – Thomas also published books, perhaps most importantly a series of children’s books by author John Newberry. In his time, the Thomas empire produced more than 1,000 titles (far more than any of his rivals, including Franklin) and was bolstered by many shrewd business moves, including buying a book bindery in Worcester in 1782 and progressively opening branches and partnerships in Boston, Newburyport, Springfield, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Baltimore. In addition to magazines, newspapers, almanacs, and other ephemera, the books from Thomas’s sixteen presses included the first American editions of major English novelists such as Laurence Sterne and Oliver Goldsmith, the first American novel (The Power of Sympathy, or, The Triumph of Nature, 1789, by William Hill Brown), and the earliest American edition of Mother Goose (1786). His decision to acquire the copyright to all of Noah Webster’s spelling and grammar books, in 1789, proved a particularly shrewd investment. After his development of the first truly successful interstate publishing and retailing network in the history of America’s book trade, Thomas, in his retirement after 1802, penned the monumental and still relevant History of Printing in America (in which he provides the first comprehensive and authoritative description of the people and firms at the heart of the country’s colonial and late 18th-century through early 19th century book industry) and in 1812 founded the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, whose vast collection of pre-1876 American imprints (most donated by Thomas) is rivaled only by the Library of Congress.

One of my goals has been to acquire a Thomas imprint – book, pamphlet, or newspaper – in good condition. This week’s item comes close: like the Elsevir I wrote of before, however, this item is from a later family member in the trade. Upon his “retirement” from the trade in 1802, Thomas passed his business on to his son, Isaiah Thomas, Junior (for simplicity, I will refer to Thomas, Junior as Thomas from this point; if I refer to the father, I will use Thomas, Senior). Like his father, Thomas rested a substantial portion of the firm’s income upon that always reliable staple of the industry: textbooks.

This book is The Understanding Reader: or, Knowledge Before Oratory, Being a New Selection of Lessons, Suited to the Understanding and Capacities of Youth, and Designed for Their Improvement. Its goal is to teach students about "Reading”, “The Definition of Words”, and “Spelling, Particularly Compound and Derivative Words.” The title-page promises that the book offers “A Method Wholly Different From Any Thing of the Kind Ever Before Published.” It also offers an observation attributed to Ben Franklin: “Our boys often read as parots [sic] speak, knowing little or nothing of the meaning.” The book is by Daniel Adams (1773-1864), a Leominster, Massachusetts-based academic and physician who eventually moved to New Hampshire, where he became a state legislator in 1838. Adams’s textbooks were popular and this was no exception, going through over two dozen editions from various publishers between its first printing (by [Daniel] Adams & Wilder for Adams, in 1804) and its last (by Hori Brown of Leicester, MA in 1821); according to the lavishly descriptive copyright statement on the verso of the title-page (typical for its day), the book was entered for copyright in Massachusetts by the Commonwealth’s district clerk (and Salem native) Nathaniel Goodale, on “the 27th day of September, in the twenty eighth year of the independence of the United States of America” (that is, Sept. 27, 1804; because Adams’s preface is dated “Leominster, Sept. 29, 1803” some descriptions of the book by dealers, Wikipedia, etc. misattribute the copyright to that date – instead, oddly, it seems that nearly a full year elapsed between Adams’s completion of the book and its appearance in print). 

The Thomas firm evidently obtained the copyright shortly after – perhaps almost concurrent with – the appearance of the first Adams & Wilder edition. This particular title is an excellent demonstration of the reach of the Thomas empire, for most of his editions were printed in different cities and towns around the country and for retail by different specific booksellers in those cities and towns, but nearly all of them were published by Thomas and bear his family’s name. Like his father before him, Thomas mastered the lucrative art of book wholesaling.

My copy is of the sixth edition of The Understanding Reader. It was published by Thomas – who prominently points out in his imprint that he is the “Proprietor of the Copy Right” – and “Sold Wholesale and Retail by him in Worcester, and by all the principal Booksellers in the United States.” It was printed by Ebenezer Merriam (1777-1858) in Brookfield (today’s West Brookfield), Massachusetts; the relationship between the Merriam firm, which specialized in textbooks, and the Thomas family was a productive one, even after the Merriams left Brookfield for Springfield in 1831. Eventually, in 1843, the Merriams would obtain from the Thomas clan the copyright to one of their most successful titles, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, giving rise to the title by which the book is more generally known today: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The final page, T6v, presents one of those intriguing publisher’s advertisements that reveals a bit about the book market at the time of publication. The advertisement, headed “Valuable School Books”, notifies readers that “[t]he following valuable School Books are published by ISAIAH THOMAS, Jun. and are kept constantly for Sale at his respective Bookstores in Boston and Worcester, Wholesale and Retail; also by said THOMAS and WHIPPLE, Newburyport.” The titles listed are Scott’s Lessons on Elocution, Murray’s Abridgment of English Grammar, the third Worcester edition of Murray’s English Grammar (copied from the sixteenth London edition; the blurb gives evidence of the pride Thomas took in his work: “No pains nor expense have been spared in rendering the Third Edition worthy of the liberal patronage which the former Editions have received; and the Proprietor thinks he may justly pronounce this Edition superior to any impression of the work in America; and he flatters himself, that by its increasing demand, he shall be remunerated for the expense and labor he has bestowed”), Parish’s Compendious System of Universal Geography, and Perry’s Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue (“the proprietor thinks no other recommendation can be necessary than only to mention that from THIRD to FORTY THOUSAND of the Improved Edition of Perry’s Spelling Book sell yearly”). The ad ends with a note that, “The Trade are informed that they can be supplied with any of the above in Sheets or Bound, in large or small quantities, on as low Terms as any similar works are sold for in the United States.”

As with most such textbooks, the aim of Adams’s book is to expand and enrich the student’s command over vocabulary and spelling in anticipation of his or her later lessons in rhetoric and oratory. The contents comprise sample passages, organized by themes, in some instances being extracts drawn from notable sources (from Milton to Franklin and the Bible to Goldsmith); in the margin beside each passage, Adams has pulled out in italics the key vocabulary word for the student to master. In an innovative use of pointing, those words that the student is to learn to spell are marked with a period and those that the student is to learn to define are marked with “a note of interrogation” (i.e., a question mark). Glancing through the book, it’s difficult to resist the temptation simply to read down the margin and imagine the words there are some kind of surreal staccato dialogue out of a lost play by Samuel Beckett.

Adams’s preface bears quoting at length in several places because of the insight it affords into early American pedagogical theories about how, and why, students learned to read and use language. First, after explaining the punctuation system and how teachers can use it to drill students who have practiced with the book, Adams explains the “advantages to be derived from accustoming youth to give definitions of words”; the value of this, he insists, goes beyond “simply that of becoming acquainted with the meaning of them”:

1.     Their minds will be excited to inquiry. In this way they will arrive to an understanding of many ideas of the Writer, which otherwise would have been wholly lost to them. 
2.     It will enlarge their acquaintance with language, not only by a knowledge of those particular words which they would define, but also by bringing many new words to their view. 
3.     It will help them to a readiness and facility of expressing their ideas. There is nothing in which frequent use and practice do more for a man, than in this one thing. If a man has never been accustomed to express himself on any subject or thing, he will be much put to it and appear exceeding awkward at first, however well he may understand the subject on which he would speak. 
4.     It will inspire them with a confidence in themselves, and in their own understandings, which will go further and be of more use to them on any public or private occasion than whole months or even years declamation on the stage.

The ideas Adams presents hint at dual nature of early American teaching: it was both rooted in the classical and often mechanical systems of the European Renaissance (memorization, oration, etc.) and also pushing towards the more open-ended and progressive systems of the American Enlightenment and soon-to-develop education reform movement (provocations to inquiry and exploration, the inspiring of confidence, training in the tools in addition to the content of learning, etc.).

At the same time, however, Adams – like most compilers of textbooks for children in the period – understood that the kinds of material he set before students, the ideas presented in the extracts, would also be of paramount importance in shaping their young minds and instilling in them “proper” thoughts and conduct. Finally, at the end of each chapter, Adams provides a set of questions about the content of the section and encourages teachers to pose such questions to students in order to ensure that on top of mastering the language they are also grasping the ideas presented to them (which span natural history, geography, literature, biblical narrative, and morality).

The paper is a typical early-19th century cheap wove stock often seen in textbooks of the period; they measure 11cm x 17cm. The binding is an unremarkable, thick tanned pigskin – a hide that, given its extreme durability, was a frequent choice for binders of early textbooks – cut very unevenly and glued inexpertly onto the boards (probably done by an amateur or owner rather than Thomas’s bindery; as indicated by the ad quoted above, Thomas, like other publishers, often sold his textbooks unbound and the buyer would be responsible for binding or paying for binding). There’s no printing on the binding, but it does look like a faint handwriting is on the back board; it is now, however, illegible. The book is 228 pages and may be described collationally as 2o in 6s: [#] A6-T6 [π]: $1 and 3 [as miniscule with “2”]. There are no catchwords and no errors in either pagination or running titles, which are identical throughout the book (except for the preliminaries, which were printed on sheet A) and suggest the use of a skeleton forme. There are a few obvious compositional errors – such as setting “thier” instead of “their” – and, judging from frequent blotting, the inking was evidently done quickly and with little regard for precision. In general, the book is in fair condition with some chipping on the binding and some tears to pages and water stains throughout the block with no loss of text and no loose pages.

Aside from a pen squiggle on p. 185 (Q3r) there are no marginal markings. A previous owner has inserted three slips of paper, but these seem to be meant simply to mark the book’s only three (unattributed) illustrative plates (a reindeer on p.39; a camel on p. 124; and an elephant on p. 177). There is, however, some owner’s provenance on the front flyleaf. On the recto of the leaf a cursive, early ninteenth-century hand has written “Caroline P. Goodnow’s” and, beneath that in a lighter ink, “Caroline P. Goodnows | Book Febry 24th 1816”. The only precise match that I can find for this name in any historical records is a Caroline P. Goodnow who married Captain Lucius Brigham in Princeton, Massachusetts, in October 1832. One genealogy website guesses that her death date was around 1848, but in the New England Historic-Genealogical Society’s 1860 Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts she is described as still alive in October 1852 when her grandmother died at her house in Lexington at the impressive age of 104. Given the marriage date, it seems probable that this is the same person that owned my book; as a young girl in the early 1810s, Goodnow purchased Adams’s Understanding Reader, possibly for school purposes. It’s always exciting to obtain a book bearing woman’s ownership provenance from an age when literacy education for women was still struggling to gain a foothold. The fact that Caroline Goodnow owned Adams’s book stands as a reminder that Adams’s own casual assumption that his reader would be “a man” (see his goal #3, quoted above) was, by the early 1800s, an already outdated social convention. 

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