And you think YOU buy a lot of books…
For most of us, book collections are small, personal representations of our tastes, interests and budget. But there was a time when book collections were a public representation of ego, wealth and acquisitiveness. It was the golden age of book collecting.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of conspicuous consumption and dazzling displays of wealth. It wasn’t enough to be rich; one had to burnish one’s wealth with class, taste and refinement – and material possessions, including books. J.P. Morgan, Henry Edwards Huntington, Eli Lilly and others were engaged in the chase for treasures around the world. Some of the finest book collections ever sold went up for sale in the first 20 years of the 20th century, and those men bought them.
In the summer of 1914, the New York Times published a boastful headline: “England’s Rarest Books Being Bought by Americans.” The New World was maturing, and was stripping England – indeed, all of Europe – of its heritage. The culture that Europeans believed Americans were incapable of creating, they were buying. One by one the best English private libraries – the fourth Earl of Ashburnham’s, Henry Hut’s and so on – fell to the Americans.
Henry Huntington collected books on the English Renaissance, medieval manuscripts and incunabula (books printed before 1501) plus American history and literature. He managed to accumulate 420,000 books and seven million manuscripts. That works out to 150 books per day for each day of his 77-year life. Henry Folger acquired nearly half of the Shakespeare First Folios in the world. Eli Lilly managed to buy a paltry 20,000 books. Morgan (whose library is pictured above) bought three Gutenberg bibles, early children’s books, incunabes and first editions of Byron, Dickens, Poe, Twain and other giants of literature. The Morgan Library says it’s impossible to determine how much he spent on books. One thing the collectors had in common, besides their appetite for books, was that they worked in close partnership with booksellers to find what they wanted.
You probably aren’t another J.P. Morgan, and we certainly aren’t another A.S.W. Rosenbach (Lilly’s go-to bookseller), but the same principles apply. Let us know what you collect, and we’ll help you on your way to getting what you want. Maybe not Gutenbergs, though. First Folios are tough, too. But 150 books a day? We could do that.