An Update on Joel Munsell, 19th Century Albany Printer

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Unlikely.binding

A garish binding by a straightlaced printer.


By Bruce McKinney

For more than three years, I have been searching the internet for "re-appearances" of books, manuscripts and ephemera printed [and or written] by Joel Munsell, the 19th century Albany printer-author- scholar-entrepreneur. Mr. Munsell was at heart a job printer who, while earning a living, also indulged his passion for history and thereby attracted a steady flow of projects in the category. These productions are today the more valuable items within the thousands of jobs he printed during his fifty-year career. Their value, or frequent lack of it, is not however the basis of my interest. Mr. Munsell was unique in the 19th century for his record keeping. Others kept records. He kept records and published them in Munselliana, an inventory of the broadsides, pamphlets and books he printed between 1828 and 1871. In this way, his production records have become accessible to those interested today. For about one thousand of the 2,268 items detailed, the quantity printed, is given. These quantity-identified items periodically come up on line making it possible to track reappearances statistically and develop theories to explain the consistencies and inconsistencies encountered. Form, size and subject become variables with hundreds of examples and ultimately thousands of reappearances to give weight to interpretation. Hence, what was impossible to know a few years ago now, because of the internet, becomes not only possible; it begins to look in time likely we will conclusively confirm probability of re-appearance and be able to assign weight to variables. For instance, it is already clear that the number of pages is second only to form of binding as a predictor of survival. Size matters.

For 45% of Munsell's production we have item details, print runs and increasing data on frequency of appearance [FOA]. For 55% we have item details and FOA data but not the quantity printed. Based on the statistics developed from the one thousand items whose print runs are known, it should be possible to estimate print runs for material in the second group based on frequency of reappearance and in time to confirm the validity of the research anecdotally. This could lead to a more general print run theory in five years and potentially to a Howes Usiana type of quantity projection for material printed by others. Such a theory will be opposed by some who prefer bookselling be a black art. Collectors, however, will demand clarity as a condition for purchase and the market will adjust. The field has been more an art than a science. Over the next ten years, it becomes more of a science.

So how is information-based collecting going? I live in the efficient market and here share a pastiche of recent Munsell purchases I made mostly on eBay. I acquire material on Abe, other listings sites, at auction and from dealer catalogues but for Munsell printings eBay is well suited to disperse the hodge podge of material that passed through the Munsell presses.

Recently I acquired a dozen items for $772. The most expensive was a small folio 1860 reprint of Hamor's 1615 Virginia. This is Munsell at his gaudiest, one of 200 copies. It cost $311. The great find was a full bound year of the Mechanics' Journal, an 1846-1847 weekly magazine that escaped mention in Munselliana. Munsell and Robert MacFarlane together signed the publisher's statement. This gem cost $182.

A single issue of the Vermont Quarterly Gazetteer opened my eyes to another very attractive publication Munsell printed in the early 1860s. It is beautifully illustrated.