A Letter from America XVIII: Why Do Original Boards Matter? (October)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

The other day I was out in a kayak, trying to get back into harbor against a falling tide, and it got me thinking about tides of fashion and the like. Hardly the best time to do that, what with large watercraft about to run me down and a three foot chop, but when I get an idea like that in my head I just have to go with it, What is it, I thought, as I took a bucketful of water full in the face, with original boards? Why do we care about original boards? All they really mean is that the early owners of the book were too cheap or disorganized to get them put in decent calf bindings. Now my thoughts were running against the tide too. I stopped thinking and rowed like hell.

I’m not talking here about books in proper contemporary bindings, which have always been favored by bibliophiles; original vellum and stamped pigskin and proper calf are timeless. I’m talking about the more utilitarian binding forms that became common publisher’s practice from the late 18th century, intended only to protect the book until the buyer put it into something better. Why should these command a premium? The answer is, of course, that we have all gotten a lot more sophisticated about the collecting of artifacts. That’s an ironic word to use in book collecting, since it has the double meaning of fixed up or fiddled around with (come to think of it, that does apply to some dealers and collectors I know. Maybe "sophisticated" can become a euphemism for plastic surgery). In the old days, people just wanted their books to look good on the shelves. Now they want them to look "as issued", which may or may not be the same thing. 

Few fields have seen as much of a transformation, in this regard, as Americana. The essence of the genre, after all, are small, often ill-printed books and pamphlets, made rarer by lousy treatment at the time of issue and rediscovered in outhouses and garages. The more ephemeral of these never had bindings in the first place; they were stab-stitched signatures, with at the most plain wrappers. The pioneering bookseller in the field, Henry Stevens of Vermont, realized the cosmetic problem immediately when he arrived in London in 1844, determined to make Americana a collectible field. The messy little books were washed and pressed within an inch of their lives and done up in full crushed morocco by Bedford or Pratt (later by Riviere or Sangorski). This allowed their true rarity to shine through, reflected, so to speak, by the binding. Stevens soon turned this style to everything he handled; a set of Purchas or De Bry that has been through that mill can be identified at twenty paces. In the process much bibliographical detail was squashed beyond recovery. The Stevens look was a crowd-pleaser; one New England collector made sure that Stevens stripped the original binding off a Bay Psalm Book and rebind it in morocco before taking delivery.

The desire for the "as issued" artifact, I contend, came to the collecting of literature well before it came to Americana or travel literature generally. An obsession with original parts and original boards first seems to manifest itself at the beginning of the 20th century, mainly in the collecting of 19th century English literature. A crucial moment must have been when some genius (I’m sure a bookseller) took a tip from natural history collectors and adapted the so-called Solander box (named after the botanist on Cook’s first voyage) to house the unhandsome original. Now you could have your cake and eat it to – "as issued" and morocco on the shelves! Who among my readers can pinpoint that moment of bibliopolic brilliance? I have never seen a half morocco box that I would date before 1900, but the idea was clearly in widespread use by the time Newton wrote The Amenities of Book Collecting in 1918.

A book which has bred a particular cult of "original printed boards" is the Philadelphia, 1814 first edition of Lewis and Clark. If one looks at bookseller’s and auction catalogues from before World War II no particular deal is made of this book in boards, and people seem to have thought the best way to get it was in original calf. Then, in 1944, Goodspeed’s turned up a truly extraordinary copy which had been wrapped in newspapers at the time of publication and was literally untouched. Mike Walsh, their great Americana expert, offered it to the collector Thomas W. Streeter for $750 – at the time about ten times the price of a nice copy in calf. Walsh told me that Streeter’s first reactions was "At that price it better have diamonds on the binding," but when he saw it, he bought it. At the Streeter Sale in 1967 the copy realized $35,000 (by that point a copy in calf was worth perhaps $1000). The buyer was Frederick W. Beinecke via the bookseller Peter Decker, and it is now in the Beinecke Library at Yale. A cult was born. In 1971 the collector Alfred Berol, who had several, issued a census of copies in boards. None came close to the Streeter copy, but a system of assertion and counter-assertion has been around ever since; "Mine’s less rubbed than yours" – "Well, my spine is nicer than your spine."

The funny thing is, in the last year or so far more copies of Lewis and Clark have shown up in original boards than in contemporary calf. Just coincidence, presumably, but it is funny to see the rare "as issued" version prove more common in the marketplace than the bound versions. The only difference is the snazziness of the morocco boxes. That’s where fashion really plays a role.

– William S. Reese