Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2019 Issue

British Library Digitizes Its "Private Case" Collection, AKA Porn Books

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An illustration from Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies.

In the apparent belief that there is a shortage of digital porn available to the public, the British Library has digitized its infamous "Private Case" collection. You may have to go to the library's "reading room," or that of a subscribing institution to conduct your research, but it is now readily available to you. This wasn't always the case.

 

Up until a spin-off in 1973, the collections that later formed the British Library were part of the British Museum. They had been given books, to use the words of an earlier time, wanting in "redeeming social value," by people who collected such stuff. This had been going on for over a century, but the British Museum was trapped between preservation and acknowledging possession of material deemed disgraceful, at least publicly. So they kept it away from everything else, locked up in its own special case. Hence it was given the name "Private Case" collection. After all, this collection was begun during Victorian times, and Queen Victoria was not exactly known for her libertine moral views.

 

Once the British Library was separated from the Museum in 1973, authorities became more liberal with the collection. Barriers to viewing it were lowered, and eventually, anyone could see it if they requested. Nevertheless, its existence was not widely known, the British Library not exactly promoting it. And, since it was not separately cataloged, it was hard to find the material. It was buried in there with the cards for millions of other books. You needed to know exactly what you wanted to see it.

 

Now that has all changed. The 2,500 volumes in the Private Case collection have been digitized with the assistance of Gale, a database provider. The material can be viewed on screens in the British Library's reading rooms, or at any other library that subscribes to this database. You might want to encourage your local library to subscribe if they don't already (they probably don't).

 

The oldest title in the collection comes from 1658, Rare Verities: the Cabinet of Venus Unlocked and Her Secrets Laid Open. Today, the title of such a book would be less subtle and more straightforward, but you can still figure out what this one is about. The 18th century brought perhaps the most famous of early British erotic tales, Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It was radical for its time, though the language is a bit stilted for today's audiences, who prefer little left to the imagination. There is the 20th century's The Story of O, said to be the dirtiest French novel ever written. This is from the land that produced the Marquis de Sade, no less. It must be something special. Unlike most of this pornography, it was written by a woman, Anne Declos.

 

Speaking of the good Marquis, de Sade is found in this collection too. It has been over two centuries since he graced the literary scene yet his writings are still way too depraved even by current standards. You can call his work "timeless."

 

And then there are the Merryland books. These were first published in the 1740s. These, like others of its age, are both subtle and obvious, not so clear as to incur the wrath of censors, but not so subtle that their meaning could be misunderstood. Among their authors was one Roger Pheuquewell. One suspects that was a pseudonym.

 

Of a more practical nature was Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies. This afforded lists and addresses of working women, including details about their attributes and specialties. Miss Sp-nc-r of 35 Newman Street "is never so good a companion as when a little enlivened with the juice of the grape." Of Miss Fr-m of Berwick Street we learn that her "parts below are very conveniently adapted to any size."

 

Who says history has to be dull?

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>19th, 20th and 21st April 2021</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br>Atlases and Maps</b
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br> Veneto and Venice, a Selection of Books from the XVI to XX century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br></b>Rossini Gioachino, Baguette de chef d'orchestre appartenuta a Gioachino Rossini, dono del Comune di Passy. 1500 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Manetti Saverio, Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo. Cinque volumi. 1767. 18.000 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Poe Edgar Allan, Double assassinat dans la rue morgue. Illustrations de Cura. 1946.
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.

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