Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

Freeman's Begins Third Century with Celebration

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Beginning the third century...


In time the Freeman enterprise came in off the streets to occupy a succession of locations in Philadelphia's city center, an area already in subtle if not absolute decline. The firm focused on "jobbing;" second hand furniture and local real estate its strengths. The city early declared itself the Athens of America and in time relived Athens' fate as the century progressed. Freeman's, for its part, was nimble finding opportunity in decline. The final decades of the 19th century would see a significant portion of Philadelphia's commercial opportunities slip away to New York: higher fees and taxes the fulcrum accelerating the shift.

The first century was not without its special moments. In 1824 the firm began regular, if irregular, book sales. The material was rarely if ever catalogued, depending instead on the knowledgeable to understand and interpret. Important material flowed into the rooms although not always books. In 1838 the firm sold the remarkable chess-playing automation: DeKempelen's celebrated chess player known as The Turk, an elaborate mechanical box with a hidden person inside that left the awestruck believing the machine could think. A few years later the firm sold in a succession of sales the local incarnation of the South Seas Land Bubble, mulberry trees, which enriched consignors and the auction house but produced little silk and less wealth for the ever green buyers. Thirty-years later the firm found significant success in liquidation, selling debris from the 1876 Centennial Exposition and later real estate parcels such as the Philadelphia Post Office which they hammered down for a then astounding $425,000 in the same year a first class letter cost two cents: 1884.

Toward the end of the century the firm was conducting regular though un-catalogued book sales and it was possible to occasionally see the young A. S. Rosenbach, whose shop was nearby, come in to inspect and sometimes bid. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, at Thomas Birch, catalogued sales were continuing though the company was nearing its end. In 1908 the exceptional book cataloguer Stan V. Henkels joined the firm bringing with him the final two Samuel W. Pennypacker book sales, the earlier six having been conducted by Davis & Harvey. In this way, although only briefly, the firm became part of one the most important dispersals of printed material in American history. Henkels would, in a few years, depart to start his own firm and Freeman would revert, with some exceptions, to uncatalogued book sales. Books, briefly the bricks then reverted to mortar as paintings and antiques reassumed their higher place in the order of things. In 1919 the firm sold an important Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the same one many students would later see hanging in their high school home rooms, a paper copy under glass to put a face to the name Washington and bring life to the American flags that invariably hung nearby. The printed material would remain interesting, if uncatalogued, attracting the exceptional Mabel Zahn of Sessler's, other dealers and many collectors to periodically acquire material during the next four decades.

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