Notes from an Uncatalogued Archive

While meeting this week with the local overseer of rare books, Sarah Stanley, to discuss a class visit to Special Collections, I learned of an as yet uncatalogued collection of religious pamphlets that has passed into Professor Stanley’s care. This assortment is actually one of three pamphlet tributaries snaking around our archives (thanks to various organizations’ separate collecting efforts), and all are in need of further conceptual mapping and physical organizing. Our librarians’ initial dips into these streams suggest that there are well over one thousand pamphlets on site. Their range of publication stretches, temporally, from at least the late seventeenth to mid-twentieth centuries (with particularly strong nineteenth century representation) and, spatially, across publishers on at least three continents. In other words, this won’t be my last post on this matter.

I spent a few hours last week surveying two hundred or so specimens of uncatalogued material, and I’ve been struck by how the collection has much to offer not only to religious historians, particularly those interested in Methodism, missionary societies, and early nineteenth-century religious life in New England, but also to book historians.

Here follows a few preliminary observations about the interest the collection might hold for the latter folk.

(Nota bene: You can click on any of the images gathered below to enlarge your view.)


While most of the pamphlets have suffered erosion (whether because of natural causes or, alas, outdated archival practices [such as dismemberment]), particularly to their covers, I encountered several that are intact, as seen here in the case of Bishop Griswold’s Pastoral Letter (Boston, 1816), which is made of thick colored paper on which a label has been glued:

The richest cover in my estimation, however, is significantly worse for wear, that of A Discourse Delivered at Portland, May 5, 1814, Before the Bible Society of Maine. Here’s the front, which is signed by one William Lord, though apparently given to (notice the “For”) Nathaniel Lord:

The interest arises from the textual abundance found on the back:

That’s right: the printer, one Arthur Shirley of Portland, has claimed the back as an advertising space, listing (at the top) other titles available (such as “Scott’s force of truth” and “Orton’s discourses to the aged”), recent publications (including Mrs. Trimmer’s “Sermons for family reading”), stationary, and, as we see in the blackletter typeface at the bottom, book-binding services. All of this is notable for the way that we think about the evolving position of the printer within the book production cycle, as mapped by scholars such as Robert Darnton:

In our present specimen many of these squares overlap: the printshop is a site of production–printing pamphlets of the present sort (sermons and “discourses”) and longer forms–as well as well as retail (for past titles), supply (stationary), and what in a previous post I called, after Stephen Orgel, the reader’s “perfection” of the book–binding. Arthur Shirley did it all in 1814, and his pamphlets let us know it.


The history of reading has become a lively area of scholarship that considers not only past eras’ mandates about how one ought to read but also but also the evidence in books that reveal what the practice of reading entailed. Several of the pamphlets are notable in this second respect, such as this one, a satirical piece from the early nineteenth century (1820, I believe) titled The Methodist Pill:

The striking feature appears in this image:

Within the text block, you may be able to discern small markings  (the largest being an “X”) next to the capitalized names “WOOD,” “WOOD,” and “SMITH,” which then correspond to the names written in the gutter margin: Rev. Thomas Wood, Mr. James Wood, and Rev. R. Smith. Similar markings are found throughout the pamphlet. The reader was, in effect, solving the thinly-veiled riddle of satire in what seems to me at least an early nineteenth-century hand. One wonders–was this simply for the reader’s own satisfaction (puzzle complete)? Or did he (or she?) scribble these notes in anticipation of another reader’s review of the text?

The history of reading is a capacious endeavor that has room too for those who consider not simply how but what people read and had access to in their respective times and climes. Many of the pamphlets in our archive were issued by missionary societies that were bookish pipelines (perhaps even lifelines) to remote places (“remote,” that is, from [urban] print culture). In 1811, The Missionary Society of Connecticut appended to their “narrative” of the previous year’s endeavors a summary of the Society’s finances and a “list of books sent to the new settlements.” The following two images address these issues:

In the large chunk of text in the first image, notice that with the exception of one Benjamin Beecher’s gift of land, the donations to the society are exclusively textual. These gifts–which largely consisted of the form now in question, the pamphlet–might seem to us now a rather meager haul, the gifts of Peter Gleason and Dr. Trumbull inconsequential in comparison to that of Mr. Beecher. Yet, as the ensuing list of books sent to the settlements suggests, one of the Society’s primary functions was the circulation of religious literature. Gleason, Trumbull, Ely, and Williams (the four book-donors) were offering the Society its normal material support. One suspects that eventually Mr. Beecher’s gift would be converted into paper.

Now within both lists (the former appearing to feed into the latter), we find many of the most popular works of theology and devotion from the time period, including works by Watts, Newton, and Dodderidge (notice that Jonathan Edwards makes a small cameo). One striking suggestion that these lists make, especially pronounced in the case of the settlement-sendings, is that the Society’s supply of pamphlets or bound copies of periodicals dwarfed that of bibles. Notice the first line: “820 Religious tracts cantaining [sic] short Sermons.” Notice the fourth to last (in the second image): “6 Bibles.” By far the best represented genre on the list is the sermon, printed either as collections or as one-offs. From a material perspective, we can easily grasp why this imbalance arose: sermons didn’t use much paper or type and could be bound in a simple, cost-effective way, while bibles consumed large quantities of paper, required either loads of type or frequent distributing, and necessitated elaborate bindings. (The 1790s had seen an experiment with subscription printing of a bible by the New York printers Hodge and Campbell [likely the first bible printed in that state] as a way to make the price manageable.) With these figures in mind, one has a better sense of the material catalyst for the foundings of Bible Societies (whether in Britain or the U.S.) in the early nineteenth century (many of which drew members from tract societies founded in the previous century).


As I have observed in an earlier post, book historians of the early modern period have developed loose typologies of the marks that readers left in books, including the first part of the above section heading. “And gifting” is my proposal (related to my slowly developing “Amicable Annotation” series), and we’ll see an example below. I want to begin, though, with a practice that has given those early modernists pause, and that is the habit of early modern book owners to write their names repeatedly on their books (to see an extreme example, see the “featured image” at the top of this post). Our archive has a few notable examples of this, including the image at the top of this post, which I now display in full:

As the owner repeatedly tells us, this is “Eben. Morris’s Book” (dated “’74”). There are records of a minister named Ebenezer Morris in Wales in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I suspect that he is the owner of this Welsh-printed pamphlet on the deathbed sayings of a leader of the Methodist movement in Wales.

As I have suggested in the Amicable Annotation series, marks like these don’t simply show us a different set of habits but a contrasting sense of the nature of book ownership. As discussed here, Orgel argues that ours is an “author-centered” regime of the book, in which the object arrives “perfected” from the publisher, and this causes many now to shrink from altering (one may say “marring”) printed objects with our own scribbling. Eben. Morris exemplifies Orgel’s “reader-centered” regime.

Again, in my discussion of early modern owners’ marks, I noted Jason Scott-Warren’s argument that such repeated “tagging” was a form of self-fashioning. As I wrote in that earlier post, these marks comprised an “an early modern way of inhabiting one’s book–of saying, and here S-W consciously draws on modern graffitese, I was here.” I argue that S-W’s evidence also shows that “graffiti could also offer a way of saying, I wasn’t alone,” that is to say, as a sociable practice. Evidence of this also sits in our pamphlet archive on the title page of New Missionary Field, A Report to the Female Missionary Society for the Poor of the City of New-York and its Vicinity (1817):

Here’s my best guess about what this says: “T. F. Davies / from his friend […] / the Author[?],” that last phrase found on other pamphlets in our archive that were gifted from author to friend. We can only speculate on why these pen marking were cut short at some earlier moment (perhaps in order to be bound or housed in a smaller format?), but we do know one thing for sure: they weren’t viewed as essential aspects of the pamphlet by whoever did the chopping. The author-centered conception of the book makes such friendly marks expendable. And that, in turn, clarifies the underlying ethical program of the “Friendship: Book” series: I want to give the book back to readers.

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