By Michael Stillman
Recently issued was Michael Brown Rare Books 44th catalogue of Printed and Manuscript Americana. Offered are 262 items, primarily early Americana, although we note a few European items are mixed in. The one-of-a-kind manuscripts are some of the most fascinating as they give unique, otherwise unrecorded views of earlier times. Many relate to journeys across the land when travel was very different from what we know today. Michael Brown's catalogues provide a diverse collection of topics related to America, and will undoubtedly appeal to those who collect in the field. Here are few selections.
Item 54 is one of the most recent writings in the catalogue, a manuscript diary by Alice Gehant of some family automobile trips in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota between 1914 and 1925. By 1925, there must have been some decent highways, but in 1914, traveling by car required much more planning. Ms. Gehant notes they packed "a piece of bacon, about 30 eggs, boiled chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, salt, pepper and sugar, coffee and tea, pickles, bread, a can of condensed milk and some jam." Not only were they not stopping at McDonald's, there were no Holiday Inns along the way either. Instead, as night approached, they would stop at someone's house and ask permission to camp in the front yard or elsewhere on the property. I cannot imagine what people would say if you made such a request today, but in 1914, the answer was usually "yes." Young Alice was hopeful these families would have children, and recounts a lucky stop where the family they camped with had eleven. Priced at $650.
One of the earliest supporters of the highways young Alice Gehant would get to ride many years later was Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Gallatin's is not a name the average person in the street is likely to know any more, but he was one of the most important and prescient of the nation's early leaders. He did much to steer the nation through its early financial challenges while reducing its debt. We could use him today. Item 72 is his Report...on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals...published in 1808. Gallatin was a supporter of the federal government providing means of transportation, but there was little enthusiasm for this in an era when this was considered the province of states and private industry. It would take another century before the automobile led to the establishment of a national highway system. This report includes a letter from Benjamin Latrobe, the first printed advocacy for the construction of railroads, and comments from Robert Fulton on canals. $1,000.
While support for public highways was difficult to obtain, Samuel Morse did manage to get congressional support for the building of a telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington in 1843. Item 226 is the Description of the American Electro Magnetic Telegraph: Now in Operation Between the Cities of Washington and Baltimore by Alfred Vail. Vail was a student of Morse when the latter was a professor at the University of the City of New York. He traded his services as a mechanic for an interest in Morse's company. He became a partner in 1837 and offered several improvements to Morse's apparatus. The line was completed and the first message sent in 1844, with Vail publishing this pamphlet the following year. $1,000.