I recently bid on and won an interesting Sammelband of printings from the years 1841-1843, all of which appear to have been printed in and around New York. On the binding the first, and longest item was identified: Last of the Barons by Sir. E. L. Bulwer. In the Rare Book Hub Transaction History [RBTH] we have 22 records. This volume has not done well at auction in more than two decades. It might be worth $200. Of more interest is “American Notes for General Circulation” by Charles Dickens. It is common, appearing in the rooms 2 or 3 times almost every year. Its price has been coming down and can probably be found for $500.
In addition there is an answering volume to Charles Dicken’s account. It’s “Change for the American Notes in Letters from London to New York by an 'American Lady'” and dated 1843. It’s less common but still, there are 44 records and the suggestion of a $330 valuation.
And then there is the reason I bought this volume, “The Fort Stanwix Captive, or New England Volunteer, being the Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Isaac Hubbell among the Indians of Canada and the West, in The War of the Revolution, and the Story of his Marriage with the Indian Princess, Now First Published, from the Lips of the Hero Himself." It’s written by Josiah Priest and published by J. Munsell, State Street, Albany, 1841 under cloudy circumstances.
Mr. Munsell, rare among 19th century printers, kept detailed, often accurate records of his print runs and left to history a slim volume detailing his printings, 2,268 items with the quantity printed for 990 of them. It’s a marvelous, almost unique source for statistical information that lets us compare reappearances at auction with the quantity printed [when he has provided it].
Generally, his stated print runs are roughly consistent with reappearances when also balanced against their printed forms. As is to be expected, bound material significantly outlasts pamphlets and broadsides. This missive is a 64 page pamphlet printed on unusually thin paper.
The stated print run is a very robust 6,000 copies, an unusually long print run for Munsell as over his career, his print shop appears to have averaged about 300 copies per print job.
More strangely, this printing has never been common, even snagging a ‘b’ in Howes Usiana more than sixty years ago. So, when it came up recently at Swann I was intent to buy it and did for $2,800 plus commission.
Before bidding I looked in the OCLC World Cat to see if many copies of this printing had survived in the tens of thousands of libraries that share this database. It turns out only 13 copies are identified, a number more consistent with a much smaller print run.
The obvious conclusion is that the print run was nothing near 6,000 as it has functioned more like a 200 print run over the past one hundred years. Of course, it’s possible that many copies were printed but never sold. But that is hardly logical as, once printed, these copies would be kept and eventually sold or released. And then of course there is the oft spoken story of the destruction by accidental fire of all but the lucky few copies. Such stories are not spoken about this pamphlet but they are regularly retold about other apparently quite scarce works.
So, what’s the truth? We don’t know and may never know. The work is scarce, certainly, and I’m happy to have it. Most Munselliana is impossible to find so it’s nice to scratch this one off my bucket list.