What we can learn about book collecting from Joel Munsell
By Bruce McKinney
Joel Munsell [1808-1880] was a printer in Albany, New York. He was also a record keeper and we are indebted to him for this. In what would be a long career that begins in 1828 with his printing of the Albany Minerva, a newspaper that lasted 8 issues, he begins the record keeping that would, seven years after the Civil War ended, be the first entry in his Bibliotheca Munselliana [in the AED and provided as part of this article], a useful but incomplete record of the books and pamphlets and occasional ephemera he printed during his career. In Munselliana, there are 2,283 entries and on the internet today circumstantial evidence of perhaps another 750 unrecorded or simply forgotten items that will in time be added to the Munsell canon. With this information we can reconstruct his career, enumerate his works and learn something about pricing and availability logic on the net.
What makes his record keeping so valuable are two factors: the extensive range of the printing: a specimen of type faces, the by-laws of a corporation, the contents of a library, a bookseller's catalogue, magazines, sermons and of course books and the fact that he kept records of how many copies he printed. More precisely, for about half of the items detailed in his personal printing history, the number of copies is provided. So we know that he printed 200 copies of the Constitution and By-Laws of Eagle Division No. 306, of the Sons of Temperance of the State of New York; approved by the Grand Division, April 4, 1848 [pp.36.]. We can also see that he printed 580 copies of an Agreement between the Albany and Schenectady Rail Road , and Schenectady and Troy Rail Road Company,... in 1853 [pp.36] to name just two.
When we then search ABE using Munsell in KEYWORD in their advanced search screen we find a random selection of 2,257 Munsell-printed and Munsell-related items. Much of this material isn't applicable so now we add a date range: 1828 to 1870 and the matches drop to 433. This is not 433 different titles mind you. It is simply 433 matching items and they include 91 reprints. Of the remaining 342 matches there are 148 separate titles, an average of 2.31 matches for each. One item, recorded as only "18 copies printed" in Munselliana is found and others identified as "4,000 copies printed" are not. It is absolutely random.
Among the 148 titles on ABE identified as Munsell imprints a surprising number turn out not to be in Munselliana. In fact 25% of the ABE listings aren't there. This leads to the conclusion that the full world of Munselliana is probably closer to 3,000 items and here is how I get there. In Munselliana there are 2,283 items that Munsell identifies as his. Whether his indicia is present is not an issue as he says they are his. In the ABE listings I identify 148 separate Munsell items based on descriptions provided by sellers of which 37 are not listed in Munselliana. To confirm this I order a random group of these items and confirm they are "real." To me this strongly suggests that approximately one quarter of the Munsell printings are not accounted for in Munselliana. That said, if 2283 equals three quarters, then Joel Munsell actually printed 3,044 +/- items. For collectors this is either really good or really bad news. There should be no shortage of Munsell material but there is.