A Collector’s Collection:The Rosenbach Museum & Library
MB: Harry Widener is a great example. He came from a suburban Philadelphia family who made its money selling meat to the Civil War army troops. Harry Widener was mentored by Rosenbach, and through Rosenbach he developed a taste for book collecting. In 1912 Harry Widener went to London with a list of people to see at Quaritch and Maggs provided to him by Rosenbach. We have a letter here from Widener to Rosenbach that is fascinating on many levels. It is a letter filled with excitement. In it, Widener tells Rosenbach something like: “I’ll let you see what I bought” and he mentions that he will be traveling on the Titanic the next week. Well of course that ship went down, and Harry Widener and his purchases went down with the ship. The next week [Editor’s note: actually, the biography is unclear about the amount of time that passed; see Rosenbach, pp.74-79], the Widener family decided to build a library at Harvard in Harry’s honor. They called on Dr. Rosenbach to help build this rare book library. This was an extremely important commission for Rosenbach as it allowed him to amass a great range of the best and rarest materials, all in the name of education.
AT: Can we switch gears and talk about the Museum’s relationship to Americana for a moment? I know that some of the Museum’s non-Americana holdings, like the manuscript of Ulysses and of Alice in Wonderland, have received a lot of attention (and rightly so). But I must admit that I don’t know much about the Museum’s holdings in the Americana area.
MB: It’s true that our collection of Americana – as opposed say to our collection of British literature – has not experienced as much publicity. But this is not to say that we don’t have extremely significant Americana holdings: we do. Americana in particular was very important to Dr. Rosenbach. We have Americana items ranging from the earliest known Poor Richard’s Almanac to 100 or so George Washington and Thomas Jefferson letters, Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the Union Army, a pencil draft of a telegram from Grant to Stanton announcing the surrender at Appomattox, etc. I could go on and on. We have Americana that goes back to Cortez, collections relating to Central and South America. We also have one of the only copies in original binding of the Bay Psalm Book, although unfortunately our copy is lacking 3 or 4 pages.
Other Americana treasures are books relating to the establishment of the American colonies, books relating to settlements in the U.S., the first Bible printed in Massachusetts in the Algonquin language. This last item has an interesting provenance. It is from the library of York Cathedral in England. They needed money for capital expenses, to fix their roof in specific I believe. So they called Rosenbach, who had made a name for himself by paying outrageous prices for books, a strategy that gave him the run of many libraries, including that one.