Henry Stevens and John Carter Brown: A Tangled Tale of Early Americana Collecting by William S. Reese
In November of 1844 a young man named Henry Stevens was attending a book auction at the New York firm of Gurley and Hill. It was a notable sale, certainly one of the most interesting ever held in the United States, made up of portions of the famous libraries of the Duke of Sussex and Robert Southey. Gurley had made a regular business of obtaining consignments of books from London for sale in America, and the very fact that such significant material would be risked at auction across the Atlantic suggests the rising American market for rare books in the 1840s. Stevens had little business at such a sale, as he had no money and was in fact in debt to his principal patron, the historian and publisher Peter Force, who was also present. But lack of funds, and spending other people’s money, was not something that ever deterred Henry Stevens, and whether he was able to buy or not, he followed the action keenly. For Stevens’ specialty was Americana, and the auction contained a copy, perhaps the first ever to be offered at public auction in the United States, of a Rome, 1493 edition of the Columbus Letter, the foundation work for any great collection in the area. By the time the auction was over, Force had introduced his protégé to the buyer of the Letter, John Carter Brown of Providence , and the history of book collecting in this country reached a turning point.
Henry Stevens proved, in the fullness of his career, to be a remarkable and multi-talented individual. In forty years of often tornado-like activity, he sold hundreds of thousands of books, pioneered the transatlantic traffic in rarer material, and did more than any other man to create “ Americana ” as a collecting genre. Along the way he set new standards in descriptive bibliography, including proposing the use of photographic technology in cataloging, produced numerous scholarly works and catalogues, and founded a rare book firm which survives today. He was evidently a man of great personal charm and humor, who socialized with the same gusto he brought to books. By any standard, he was one of the great figures in the rare book world of the nineteenth century, and we should be particularly gratefully to him for his key role in the founding of the John Carter Brown Library. At the same time he was notoriously slow in paying his bills, abused the confidence of a number of people who had gone out of their way to help him, had an all-to-convenient memory, and a talent for getting into fights. All of these negative talents eventually came forward in his relationship with John Carter Brown. Certainly, he was never boring.
Stevens was born in Barnet , Vermont , in 1819 and so was twenty-five when he met Brown. Always proud of his native state, he frequently styled himself “Henry Stevens of Vermont” once he had moved to London and put the initials GMB – for “Green Mountain Boy” – after his name on title pages in mockery of the stuffy listing of honorifics typical of the time. He became proficient in calligraphy at an early age, and managed to partially finance his education at Middlebury and Yale by teaching it and engrossing his classmates’ diplomas. By the time he came to New Haven Stevens also sought to earn money from his other fascination, the pursuit of the original documents of American history. Soon he was working part time for Peter Force, scouting the eastern seaboard for manuscripts and printed books. Early in his career Stevens demonstrated his tremendous ability to find important material and his even greater proclivity to buy more books than he could pay for. Indeed, by the summer of 1845 Force had fallen out with Stevens after the young man had repeatedly borrowed money from him on the basis of books to be delivered and then failed to produce the books. For Stevens, this no longer mattered, for he had found a better patron.
Some time in the spring of 1845, Stevens visited John Carter Brown in Providence , and saw the beginnings of the collector’s Bibliotheca Americana. The two men clearly hit it off, and Stevens later called this conference the “pivot” of his life. It proved to be equally pivotal for the collecting of Americana and the flow of books from Europe to the United States . With Brown’s encouragement Stevens was ready to go to London to search for the books not to be found in America . He wrote enthusiastically to Force, “I have large orders from Brown for rare books relating to America…and small orders from several other gentlemen…Brown has given me beside his list a general order, for all old books relating to America which he has not already, – and will pay ‘fair prices’ on delivery.” Stevens was careful to put the term “fair prices” in quotes. Gathering whatever other commissions he could, he sailed to England in July 1845, in his view a “self-appointed missionary” whose goal was to move the books of the Old World to the New.
The rather staid English book trade was scarcely prepared for the American ball of energy headed their way. Henry Stevens may not have been the most punctilious businessman, but it should be said that the financial jams he got himself into were almost entirely the result of his overextending himself through enthusiasm rather than deliberate misrepresentation. If his prices were high, it was because he himself had paid strong prices to get the books. In Brown Stevens thought he had a customer who wanted the books more than the money, and at least at first he was right. Several generations later Henry Huntington dismissed a jealous colleague’s criticism of the bookseller George D. Smith by saying, “Well, he got me the books, didn’t he?” Stevens got Brown the books.
Once in London , Stevens made a bee-line for the acknowledged resident expert in Americana , Obadiah Rich. Originally a Bostonian, Rich spent much of his adult life as an expatriate in the consular service in Spain . Here he began collecting original materials for early American history, and served as an invaluable source for Washington Irving while the latter was ambassador in Madrid and writing his life of Columbus . Later Rich moved to London and turned his hobby into a profession. In 1844 Rich bought the greatest private collection of Americana of the time, that formed by a wealthy French wool merchant named Henri Ternaux-Compans. Many of you may have seen, in the John Carter Brown Library, Ternaux’s distinctive bindings, with a merino ram’s head above a sack of wool, the source of the family wealth. With these books, the material he had bought from Spain , and what he had accumulated since arriving in London , Rich possessed the largest pool of early American books on the market.
What happened next was vintage Stevens. Despite the fact he had, by his own account, only forty pounds to his name, he persuaded Rich to put on hold for him 650 pounds of books. Stevens then marked these up dramatically and quoted them off to the States, primarily to Brown, who bought virtually everything he did not have. The books were shipped in February, 1846. Stevens’ invoice listing 378 books, totaled £823 after the deductions for those items that were duplicate or rejected in Providence . Brown paid almost the entire bill up front, so that only a balance of £94 9 shillings was due when Stevens’ wrote out the final, chronologically arranged bill in his handsome calligraphy a month later. Despite his prompt collection Stevens did not pay Rich in full for several years, and used the older bookseller as an often unhappy source of credit from then on. Stevens was so successful in selling books, and evidently paid just enough money to Rich, that despite frequent protests and threats to halt the flow of books, he was able to draw on the Rich stock as if it were his own. At the same time he persuaded the American customers that prompt payment was needed to secure the books.
This first invoice, in many ways the founding document of the John Carter Brown Library, is a staggering list by any computation (it is published in the Essays Honoring Lawrence Wroth, for anyone wishing to take a look.) Since he already had it Brown rejected the most expensive item, the Silber edition of the Rome , 1493 Columbus Letter, but he got three other early editions of the Letter, including the Paris, 1493, one of only three in the United States today. There was a sheaf of Cortes Letters, such basic works as Peter Martyr’s tracts, Oviedo, and Las Casas, the earliest account of New England, Brereton’s True Relation of 1602, the majority of the Virginia Company tracts ( of which the JCB now possesses the only complete set,) a substantial number of the key early works on New England, many of the Jesuit Relations series, and on and on. Even a common book like Stedman’s history of the Revolution was present in an uncommon copy; Sir Henry Clinton’s, with his manuscript notations. For the equivalent of $4100 it was a remarkable buy even at the time, although Brown was already wary enough to bemoan the “extraordinary high prices”. Both men would live to see the prices on such books rise to multiples of these numbers, and Stevens would look back fondly, and no doubt wistfully, on the days when “one might run down a hundred brace of rare old books on America in London at as many shillings a volume as must now be paid in pounds.” It is, of course, tempting for the modern bookseller to make a guess at what the invoice might total now, but it would be just that- guesswork- as some many of the items on it are simply unobtainable. Suffice it to say that the 1493 Columbus Letter, then $85, is now worth more than a million, and you see where we are headed. I cannot find an item on it that would not be at least 1000 times the price Brown paid, and multipliers of 10,000 are not uncommon. $20,000,000 might be in the ballpark.
In June and July, 1846 Brown took another 344 items, again drawn mainly from the Ternaux-Rich stock. At this point he decided to take a breather, writing Stevens that he felt “…pretty well supplied with old books on the subject of America and shall not probably purchase further to any considerable extent unless it be something of real merit. My collection, tho’ far from being complete, is yet quite extensive, & will do pretty well for a private Gents…library.” But this was a false alarm, and he was soon writing again to inquire about more books. Brown was also concerned about the privacy of their transactions. “You will oblige me by not speaking or writing to anyone regarding the amount of business you have transacted for my Account,’ he wrote, “I do not wish to have my affairs made known to A, B, C, & D.” He probably correctly understood that Stevens would cite him as a credit reference.
Brown’s patronage gave Stevens a tremendous jump-start in his business, allowing him to accumulate some capital, and perhaps more importantly some credibility, as a serious buyer and seller of books. Stevens should be given great credit for seizing the opportunity and exploiting it with extraordinary energy. He soon started businesses copying papers out of the Public Record Office for American libraries, supplying new books to public and private parties in the United States , and secured the role of agent for the British Museum to obtain books about, and from, America . Stevens thus became a pioneer of the flow of books published in the United States to England , and later extended this agency to other European universities and libraries. He also expanded his private business, acting as agent for such important American collectors as Henry C. Murphy of Brooklyn , later president of the company which built the Brooklyn Bridge , and George Livermore of Boston , already the owner of a Bay Psalm Book. The most important new patron, though, was James Lenox of New York .
Lenox was the heir to the ‘Lenox Farm’, a piece of real estate bounded by 59th Street on the south, 72nd Street on the north, 5th avenue on the west, and 3rd avenue on the east. As New York surged northward in the mid-19th century, he became a very rich man indeed. Lenox had originally been the customer of another expatriate American bookseller in London , George Putnam, a man who had taken Stevens under his wing and into his household when he first arrived in town. Stevens soon proposed to Lenox that there was no reason for him to pay “double commission” and Putnam was cut out. Under the circumstances going around Putnam was not nice, and even Stevens admitted it created “a shade of coolness” between himself and Putnam. After he and Lenox had established a close working relationship, he wrote innocently to the collector that “I fear both Mr. Rich and Mr. Putnam look upon me as interfering in their business as American booksellers in London ….” One of the remarkable things about Stevens throughout his career was his ability to stay on speaking terms with people despite his slow payment and sometime abuse of their confidence. In the case of Lenox, Stevens probably could not restrain himself once the collector told him, in an attention-getting phrase, that he could “find five pound notes more easily than rare books.” Lenox quickly eclipsed Brown as Stevens’ leading customer.
With Brown, Lenox, and various lesser lights in his fold, his library agency businesses booming, and a cash flow to keep all creditors happy, Henry Stevens was in a position by 1849 to become, as a contemporary wrote John Russell Bartlett, the New York bookseller who later became John Carter Brown’s librarian, “the great monopolist of American books in London ”. This admirable position became difficult when more than one customer wanted the same book. Stevens admitted that, with Brown and Lenox, “it was very difficult to prevent their colliding.” The situation came to a head at the Libri sale in London in February, 1849, when the first illustrated Columbus Letter, printed at Basle in 1493, came up for sale. Lenox gave Stevens a bid of 25 pounds, while Brown gave him a higher, and rather more aristocratic, bid of 25 guineas. By Stevens’ account, his usual practice was to simply buy lots on which he had multiple bids as cheaply as possible, and then award it to whoever had given him the highest number, a system he claimed had worked “without a grumble” in the past. In the event, Stevens bought the book for 16 pounds 10 shillings and, under his system, sent it to Brown. Lenox blew his top, and threatened to withdraw all of his business from Stevens if he did not get the book. After months of correspondence with Lenox, Stevens wrote Brown and appealed to him to give the book up to his chief rival to save. Although Brown was “exceedingly vexed with Mr. Lenox, and pronounced the demand selfish,” he very decently sent Lenox the book to save Stevens. If any incident demonstrates the strength continuity has brought to the modern John Carter Brown Library it is this one. Forty-seven years later Henry Newton Stevens, the punctilious son of Henry, offered John Nicholas Brown the only other copy of this edition to come on the market, and it was added to the library. Today the only two copies in the United States are those at the JCB and the New York Public Library, where the Lenox collection now resides.
The decade of the 1850s were glory years for Stevens. His enterprises prospered, the market was strong, and his luck was in. In 1855, at a general stock sale of parcels of books at Sotheby’s, he made one of the great auction coups of all time, finding a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English America, in an uncatalogued lot, and buying it for nineteen shillings. On collation the book proved to lack a signature of four leaves, which Stevens managed to trade from his Boston customer George Livermore. The completed copy went to Lenox for eighty pounds. Sadly both this copy of the Bay Psalm Book and the other copy Stevens handled, the Crowninshield-Brinley copy now at Yale, came into Stevens’ hands in original bindings, and left washed, pressed, and encased in the fanciest morocco the English binder Francis Bedford could supply.
We certainly cannot blame Stevens for his assiduous work as a completer, restorer, and rebinder of books, because what he did was so accepted at the time, and so fashionable with his customers, that he could scarcely have done anything else. The fact that so many of the great rarities of Americana were physically small and unimpressive only furthered this tendency to gussy them up. John Carter Brown at the beginning of his collecting career followed Ternaux and others in having his pamphlets bound with his initials on the front of the binding, not to mention a nasty rubberstamp on the title-page he fortunately got over fairly early. But when it came to the great sets of early voyages such as DeBry and Hulsius real damage was done. Brown spent hundred of pounds through Stevens to have his DeBry made up from different copies, washed, sized, and rebound in French red morocco. The result to a modern student is a bibliographical hodgepodge. Stevens evolved a particular style for such work that can be spotted across a room by the practiced eye. It provides an interesting exercise in the history of taste, if nothing else.
Although the Libri sale incident cast the first shadow over their relationship, Brown and Lenox got along swimmingly throughout the ‘50’s. After a sharp note in which Brown suggested “I do not like to take the leavings of Mr. Lenox, etc.” Stevens spent some four hundred fifty pounds for him at the Mondidier sale in 1851, and supplied books throughout the decade. In the spring of 1859 Brown visited London and made extensive purchases from Stevens amounting to almost 2000 pounds. It was to prove to be their last major transaction. He relied thereafter more and more upon his librarian, John Russell Bartlett. Bartlett was cool toward Stevens, who found himself arguing to the librarian that he had not “fleeced Mr. Brown Almightily” as some unkind persons had suggested. In the same letter where he defended himself the bookseller bubbled over with enthusiasm for his new acquisitions; in 1859 and 1860 Stevens bought the E.A. Crowninshield collection from Boston and the famed library of the great scientist Alexander von Humboldt from Germany . These purchases, and a lavish lifestyle, extended Stevens to the limit. He owed everyone; binders, printers, auctioneers, and other booksellers. He had large receivables and a superb stock, but no cash. Nonetheless a strong market and his unquenchable enthusiasm convinced him that all was well.
What Stevens had not figured on was the Civil War. The outbreak of hostilities had a devastating effect on the antiquarian book market in the United States . Buying virtually ceased, and wealthy men like Brown and Lenox stepped to the sidelines. It was not until 1864, as the end of the Confederacy became clear, that they began to buy again. The bulk of Stevens’ business, importing books to America , virtually disappeared overnight. By the end of the year he had moved from his grand new home to lodgings, and printers and binders were in legal proceedings against him for collection. To satisfy the debt to his printer, Whittingham, Stevens had to turn over his remarkable collection of Franklin papers, bought over a decade earlier from Franklin ’s grandson. This extraordinary archive eventually made its way to the Library of Congress. Several auctions of material to raise money did poorly, and disaster struck again when the bulk of the Humboldt Library, nearly 17,000 volumes, burned up, uninsured, in a Sotheby’s warehouse fire. In the trade Stevens had no credit, and such powerful dealers as Quaritch made no secret of their distaste for him.
One of Stevens’ efforts to raise cash was a two volume catalogue listing 2934 books, entitled Historical Nuggets; Bibliotheca Americana, rushed into print in 1862. In fact much of the listing had been standing in type since 1857. But all of the leading American customers had already seen proofs of the Nuggets before the war, and none bought further now. It is ironic that the catalogue Henry Stevens is best known for today was a catastrophe at the time. Another unsuccessful expedient was the arms business; his brief foray into supplying guns to the Union collapsed when his contact, Gen. John C. Fremont, was fired by Lincoln early in the war. In this he was more successful than his brother Simon Stevens, whose arms-dealing brought him to the center of the notorious Hall Carbine Affair scandal.
Despite all of these things, Stevens did manage, with the help of his extraordinary energy, to cobble together enough things to make it through the war. John Russell Bartlett visited on Brown's behalf in 1867, and the result was several sizable purchases. But Stevens was no longer the only game in town; Brown gave his bids for a German auction to Joseph Sabin in 1869, and when Brown himself visited London in 1870 he made the rounds of all of the dealers, including Quaritch, who, Brown wrote Bartlett , “..did not hesitate to pronounce [Stevens] a great sponge.” Nonetheless Brown agreed to give Stevens a three hundred pound advance against a proposed new catalogue, Schedule Of 2000 American Historical Nuggets…. This hasty affair, with an overblown dedication to Brown, had a total value £2155, but was offered to the collector as a lot for 1800. At the same time Stevens drew on Brown for another £350. Brown refused to honor this draft, and after perusing the list, he and Bartlett ordered only 48 items totaling eighty pounds. Stevens supplied only twelve of these. When Brown wrote in May of 1871 demanding the rest of the books and the balance of the money back, Stevens did not reply. Brown wrote Bartlett , “I hear nothing from H.S. and indeed consider him a gone case.” It was the end of their relationship. Quaritch was used to recover the rest of the books and items in Stevens’ care at the binders. The balance owed was never repaid before Brown’s death in 1874. In 1876, when Brown’s widow Sophia was in London , Stevens wrote her a pleading letter offering to settle up. Calling Brown “my earliest patron and best friend” he admitted to “neglect” because of his own “over-work and worry”, but claimed “a little friendly explanation” would set things straight. Then, he hoped “I may show you many things you might like to possess.” But Mrs. Brown was having none of it. There is no record she replied. Although Stevens did repair his fortunes somewhat before his death in 1886, his own relationship with the Brown family were at an end.
Happily, that is not the end of the story. Henry Newton Stevens was as upright as his father was slippery, and under him the family firm became again one of the leading booksellers in London . He also built a relationship with John Nicholas Brown, including the important sale I mentioned earlier. In the 20th century, especially under Henry Newton’s son-in-law Roland Tree, the firm was one of the leading booksellers in Americana , and one of the primary suppliers to the John Carter Brown Library as it continued to grow in its institutional form. From start to finish, it is likely that the firm of Stevens has supplied more important works to the Library than any other bookseller. But it all started with Henry Stevens. Whatever his faults, it was his drive and vision, as much as anything, that defined Americana as a separate field in its infancy. We can all be happy that he and John Carter Brown crossed paths that autumn day in 1844.