The emergence of the Rosenbachs as a dynamic collecting duo, and of A.S.W. as one of the most significant book dealers of his time, was no accident. Rather, it was part of a cleverly crafted plan concocted by the Rosenbach brothers. Early on, it was decided that A.S.W., because of his knowledge and background in literature (in which he held a Ph.D.—thus his “Dr.” nickname ) and history, would become the rare book man; brother Philip, more the aesthete, would control the fine and decorative arts aspects of the business. They went on to activate this plan brilliantly, creating a virtual empire in the collecting trade.
Luckily, this collecting empire has been preserved through the founding of The Rosenbach Museum & Library, an incredible resource for scholars, tourists, book dealers, and school kids alike that exists to honor the brothers as collectors and to honor collecting itself as a pursuit. (It is the only institution of which this author is aware that has posited the honoring of collecting as an enterprise as central to its mission.) This Museum, which now spreads over some three adjacent townhouses on DeLancey Place in central Philadelphia, is a truly remarkable place worthy of a stopover for anyone traveling to that historic city.
This reporter stopped by the Museum in February 2003 and was generously treated to a tour of the facilities as well as a lengthy talk with Mr. Michael J. Barsanti, Director of Special Projects. A transcript of my conversation with Mr. Barsanti will follow later in this article. First, however, I’d like to give the reader some more of a perspective on the Rosenbach brothers and A.S.W. Rosenbach in particular by indulging in a long quote from a brochure prepared by the Museum staff.
The Rosenbach Brothers
Philip H. Rosenbach (1863-1953) and Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876-1952) were the second and eighth children, respectively, born to Morris and Isabella Rosenbach. They began their lives with neither great wealth nor high social standing. Although their maternal lineage linked them to some of Pennsylvania’s earliest and most prestigious Jewish families, their father was a relative newcomer, having immigrated to the United States in 1844. He supported the family as a shopkeeper before declaring bankruptcy in 1877, just a year after A.S.W.’s birth.