An Incredible Collection for which I have the Receipt. When can I pick them up?
- by Bruce Evan McKinney
As any regular reader of Rare Book Monthly is probably aware, my collecting focus is the Hudson River Valley of the State of New York. My collection spans the gamut of material—books, of course, but ephemera, manuscripts, maps, paintings, prints, and furniture as well. I would guess that within the collection, possibly a thousand books have come into my possession. Two of these are copies of a book by Abraham Tomlinson of Beekman, New York in Dutchess County. Published in 1855, Tomlinson’s The Military Journals of two Private Soldiers, 1758-1775, with Numerous Illustrative Notes to which is added, A Supplement, containing Official Papers on the Skirmishes at Lexington and Concord is a transcribed record of two journals, one from the French and Indian War, the other from the Revolutionary War. The book was of interest to me not so much for its Revolutionary tales as it was for its imprint: Poughkeepsie.
Little did I know that my acquisition of The Military Journals decades ago would be the first step to understanding a book collecting mystery that was hinted at in a seven-page supplement of holdings in the Poughkeepsie Museum collection included with the book.
This is the story of a significant Revolutionary War collection that was first public and then private and, once private, divided between Hudson Valley and New York City material. Much of the Hudson Valley material appears to have been sold to the Poughkeepsie Lyceum in 1856, another 25 to 30 items transferred to Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh by 1858, after which, the New York City material was moved en bloc first to the Astor Library in 1859, then returned to its owner, Abraham Tomlinson, then sold to the Mercantile Library who, in 1861, published a book about it. Later the Mercantile Library would loan the collection to the Lenox Library and finally to the Lenox’s successor, New York Public whence it made its final return decades later, in stages to the Mercantile Library that had paid a substantial price for it just as the Civil War was beginning. Through all the transfers, the collection does not appear to ever have been fully catalogued.
Some forty years after I first learned about the Poughkeepsie Museum and its promotor, Abraham Tomlinson, a recent lot at Swann provided a further key that in time may resolve what the fabled collection contained and where it has gone. The item, a handwritten inventory of Tomlinson’s material loaned to the Mercantile Library in 1859, caused me to wonder if perhaps I could lay claim to the collection because of a statement written within:
List of Manuscripts relating
To the American Revolution left
At the Astor Library by Abraham Tomlinson
To be returned when called for.
If so, I have the detailed receipt and am ready to stand in for Mr. Tomlinson to bring his collection home. Let’s see.
Abraham Tomlinson of Dutchess County was, during the period 1840 to 1858, an effective acquirer if not quite a collector of American Revolutionary War manuscripts and artifacts. The first records I have found of him state he was an insurance agent in Beekman, NY in the 1840s. Whether from personal interest or from opportunity, he locally acquired Revolutionary War materials, in time creating the Poughkeepsie Museum which shows up in the Poughkeepsie Journal and Poughkeepsie Eagle as an ongoing entity by 1852.
In 1855 Mr. Tomlinson then published the Military Journals. Its indicia reads
Published by Abraham Tomlinson,
At the Museum
On the title verso it tells a somewhat different story
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1854,
By Abraham Tomlinson,
In the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States, in and for the Southern
District of New York
Stereotyped by C. C. Savage
13 Chambers Street, N. Y.
C. A. Alvord, Printer
99 Gold Street, N. Y.
This book, that reprints materials in his possession is organized by Tomlinson but it’s a New York City printing.
What’s most interesting about this book is the seven-page description on pages 122 to 128 titled
The Poughkeepsie Museum
In this list, there is hard evidence of the character of material he had on display and if, one ignores later complaints that appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal about unsatisfied obligations and contested ownership, we can see the outlines of an important collection that he led many to believe belonged to his Museum. In fact he was the owner and the Museum an effective way to attract contributions of money and material.
The public collection would be short-lived, some material being dispersed to the Poughkeepsie Lyceum four years after the Museum opened while the rest, for a time disappeared from view.
On March 7, 1856 there is the following report:
List of Articles sold to the Poughkeepsie Lyceum by Abraham Tomlinson.
Deed of a portion of Dutchess County containing the autographs of a number of the Dutchess Co. Indians;
View of Poughkeepsie in 1736
View of Poughkeepsie in 1790
Original Deed of the Great Nine Partners
A collection of Indian instruments of War and domestic implements (made in said County of Dutchess by said Tomlinson) consisting of the stone axes, arrowheads, spears, tomahawks, stone ornaments. Mortars, pestles, etc of the aborigines of the said county. The Compass, Chair and Tripod used in the first survey of the county under the directions of Cadwalader Colden. “Written instructions of Cadwalader Colden accompanying this survey.
Several newspapers of or about the date of the Revolution.
One Wampum Belt
By 1858 references to Tomlinson had disappeared from the Poughkeepsie Journal.
In March 1859 we know he then lent a substantial quantity of material from the Museum Collection to the Astor Library in New York because Tomlinson’s account book explains it.
In the material lent there are roughly five hundred items, most described in thin detail, as well as notes added a hundred years later by Radford B. Curdy, the Dutchess County newspaperman-historian, who apparently owned this account book and updated the Tomlinson Museum/Collection story at some point in the 1960s. What Mr. Curdy knew or surmised about the disposition of the collection points in various directions but he was not able to complete the story.
In 1861 we find confirmation that some, and possibly all the material lent to the Astor, had been returned to Mr. Tomlinson and then was sold to the Mercantile Library Association that published a book about it titled:
New York City during the American Revolution, being A collection of Original Papers (now first published) From the Manuscripts in the Possession of the Mercantile Library Association of New York City.
In its introduction, there is the following note:
The “Tomlinson Collection,” from which the materials for this volume have been drawn, consists of several hundred historical papers relating chiefly to the American Revolution and events immediately connected with it. These documents, comprising public and private correspondence, army rolls, orderly books, and other matter of like nature, with appropriate illustrations, have been brought together, during several years of research, by Mr. Abraham Tomlinson of this city (he apparently by that time living in New York City), with the design of having them ultimately placed in some public institution.
The whole collection was offered to the Mercantile Library Association on such terms that it was thought desirable to secure it for the inspection and perusal of its members; and this result has been accomplished through the liberality of friends of the Association. It is proposed, when opportunity favors, to have the most interesting portions of the collection arranged in such a manner as that they can be easily seen and studied.”
In 1866 the library published a thick volume of its holdings:
Catalogue of the Mercantile Library Association of the City of New York: 1865-6., a 707 page list of about 42,000 items. Neither the Tomlinson Collection nor identifiable items in it are listed.
Subsequently, but I do not yet have any dates, the collection was sent to the Lenox Library where it would be stored, uncatalogued, for decades.
I then inquired of New York Public Library a few weeks ago about any relationship they had to this collection, and Kyle R. Triplett, Librarian, The Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts responded:
Thank you for your email regarding the Tomlinson Collection at The New York Public Library. It's important to note the collection is no longer maintained by The Library. The Tomlinson collection had been on deposit, first at the Lenox Library according to the Swann Auction catalog description at least, and then later as part of the Reserve Collection at the main branch at 42nd St. There is not much information about the contents of the collection, since it was on deposit The Library didn't catalog the collection at the item level. While many details are unclear, it is apparent according to internal records that the collection was completely moved out of NYPL around 1949. Portions of the collection had also been transferred to the Mercantile Library at various dates after 1920 and the transfer was complete by 1949. Internal records state that 20 boxes 'containing newspapers, broadsides books pamphlets and manuscripts' were transferred. Again, no inventory was undertaken. And there is no material in the collections identified as Tomlinson today since it is believed the collection entirely moved to the Mercantile Library where it was then most likely sold, or split up.
As for the material sold to the Lyceum in Poughkeepsie in 1856, in 1862 the material appears to have been placed in [that is, lent rather than sold] the Poughkeepsie Library at the Courthouse [a now forgotten location].
The following paragraph, printed in a pamphlet published in 1874 by the Poughkeepsie Lyceum and containing the charter and by-laws and lists of officers from 1838 to 1874 brings the story forward:
“The foregoing, though matters of interest for the present members of the Lyceum, as embodying reminiscences of the early character of the institution, have, in 1874, but little practical value. The Reading Room was closed in July 1847. Debates were abandoned; the furniture was sold; the Relics and Library were distributed in part to the Board of Education, and in part to the Young Men’s Christian Association. On the final distribution, in 1873, one hundred and sixty-seven volumes were given to the Young Men’s Christian Association, and one hundred thirty-seven volumes, with fifty unbound of Blackwood’s Magazines, were placed in the City Library.”
In 1882 the Committee on Relics for the Lyceum reported as follows:
“Your committee appointed to look up and dispose of the Minerals, Relics, etc belonging to the Lyceum, and deposited in the Public Library Building, report that a careful search shows that many of the articles are missing, and that no trace of the quite extensive cabinet of minerals once belonging to the Lyceum has been discovered. Such articles as could be found were by your committee donated to the Vassar Brothers Institute (the secretary’s receipt for which accompanies this report) where it is hoped they may have a permanent home and be accessible to those seeking curiosities.”
Such material as was eventually contributed to Vassar College is thought to have since disappeared.
As for the material acquired by the Mercantile Library it is enjoying a better, if still tenuous, fate. Their Tomlinson material was stamped
Tomlinson Collection – Deposited by
Mercantile Library Association
So in theory their material can be traced. In the Rare Book Hub Transaction Database 19 items with this mark have surfaced, the first in 1947 and the most recent a month ago at Freeman’s. Mr. Tomlinson sold his collection to the Mercantile Library for a reported but not yet substantiated $5,000. A single letter, signed by John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence from Virginia, and Henry Laurens, then President of the Continental Congress, brought $17,500.
There are also reports that the New York Historical Society and possibly the Morgan Library have material with the Tomlinson association. In time we’ll know much more but as the story is now some 160 years old, we can be patient.
As to the signed for inventory left with the Astor Library I remain interested in the collection’s whereabouts for if any of it is still in their hands I have a receipt to present.
NB. I have an early written comparison between material at Washington’s Headquarters and the inventory detailed in Mr. Tomlinson’s book, The Military Journals, that confirms at least 25 items were transferred by Tomlinson to them.
The internet and databases will fill in the pieces.