A Letter from America XI: Ernest Wessen and the Midland Rare Book Company (February)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

If you were serious about collecting Americana a half-century ago, you wanted to be on the mailing list of the Midland Rare Book Company of Mansfield, Ohio. From this perch in the heartland of the United States, its proprietor, Ernest J. Wessen, issued a series of catalogues entitled Midland Notes, famous for the quality of the items contained, the prices reasonable even by the standards of those halcyon days, and the erudite and acerbic notes which threw light into strange bibliographical cubby-holes. You wanted to be on that list, but Mr. Wessen was as picky about his customers as his books. One of the greatest present-day booksellers in this country, when asked if there was a rhyme or reason to his shop, famously replied, "Yes, my rhyme and my reason." Wessen practiced this philosophy in spades; one wrong move and you were off the mailing list and out of the shop. As a result, runs of Midland Notes are rare. In all, 102 were produced between 1937 and 1969, mimeographed on the squishy paper favored for elementary school handouts of the era and stapled between stiff colored wrappers with an odd logo suggestive of some Art Deco-ish theme. At a time when only the grandest book catalogues had much in the way of annotation, Wessen never hesitated to write a small essay on an interesting point regardless of value, hence their continuing interest.

Wessen is a wonderful story in himself, worthy of far more than a short notice here. How many booksellers have run a patent medicine factory as well (maybe more than I think)? It is said that a number of little old ladies in Mansfield couldn’t get through the day without a snort of his (presumably alcohol-laced) vegetable tonic. How many of his peers could pick and choose between where they would first offer their best stuff? A survey of the famous Thomas W. Streeter auction catalogue reveals myriad Wessen provenance, and the equally energetic collector Dr. Frank Siebert told me he valued Wessen above all other sources. (I must digress and tell a story of Siebert visiting Wessen once in the 1940’s. Arriving in the morning, the Doctor spent all day looking at and talking about books without a break – something he could do for 24 hours at a stretch-until well past closing time, while a minor blizzard gathered outside. When Wessen finally said that he had to get home to his family, Siebert revealed he had left his own wife sitting in the car the whole time.) A flavor of Wessen can be had from a published collection of his correspondence with various customers, Rare Book Lore, edited by Jack Matthews and published by the Ohio University Press in 1992.

I have long been intrigued by the possible usefulness of Midland Notes as a reference source, but the lack of an index and the scarcity of runs was frustrating. With some effort, about twenty years ago, I managed to put a complete set together, and thought of doing a selection of the most interesting and useful entries. To this end I would take a couple of numbers with me every time I took a train trip to New York and mark them for a "best of…" compilation. Then some Ohio booksellers told me they were going to reprint the whole thing, with index, and I shelved my project in the deepest corner of the warehouse. In the end, of course, nothing happened.

Now we arrive in the cyber age, and suddenly such lost sources can be brought to life. I mentioned Midland Notes to my friend Bruce McKinney, who has recently created one of the most useful new tools in my corner of the rare book world, The Americana Exchange (www.americanaexchange.com). The Exchange has been building a powerful bibliographical resource by entering entire reference works in the field (Howes, Sabin, the American Imprints Inventories, for example) into a database, making it possible to search an item in multiple sources at once and opening the door to a number of sophisticated search possibilities. Recognizing the immense research potential of dealer’s catalogues, often untapped by more traditional scholarship, the Exchange is also entering runs of importance, such as those of Edward Eberstadt & Sons (largely Western Americana) or Maggs’ famed Bibliotheca Americana series of the 1920’s (mainly pre-1800 material). To this they have now added Midland Notes, with its broad view of the standard and the rare books of the American Mid-West that passed through Wessen’s hands. With these tools even the paths of specific copies can be traced: since the Streeter Sale is also in the database, one can sometimes trace a rarity from a specific issue of the Notes to its Streeter provenance.

Sites like the Americana Exchange are just starting to open up a whole new world of reference for collectors and dealers (there is a whole lot more that AE does, and I suggest that you go take a look). One odd effect will be to take us back into the bookish past as well as into the future, and Midland Notes will become far more widely circulated than its proprietor ever would have imagined. It’s easy to say these luminaries of an earlier generation would not have liked the Internet, but I don’t know. Wessen in his youth was also involved in pioneering aviation – in many issues of Midland Notes he offered copies of a 1909 air show program, a stack of which he seems to have grabbed while serving as a signal man waving a checkered flag from a tower as some Wright brothers plane sputtered past. He was ready to be on the cutting edge of technology then, and I’ll bet he would be now. If not, a snort of his patent medicine might have made him feel better.

– William S. Reese