Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2008 Issue

An Update on Joel Munsell, 19th Century Albany Printer

A garish binding by a straightlaced printer.


By Bruce McKinney

For more than three years, I have been searching the internet for "re-appearances" of books, manuscripts and ephemera printed [and or written] by Joel Munsell, the 19th century Albany printer-author- scholar-entrepreneur. Mr. Munsell was at heart a job printer who, while earning a living, also indulged his passion for history and thereby attracted a steady flow of projects in the category. These productions are today the more valuable items within the thousands of jobs he printed during his fifty-year career. Their value, or frequent lack of it, is not however the basis of my interest. Mr. Munsell was unique in the 19th century for his record keeping. Others kept records. He kept records and published them in Munselliana, an inventory of the broadsides, pamphlets and books he printed between 1828 and 1871. In this way, his production records have become accessible to those interested today. For about one thousand of the 2,268 items detailed, the quantity printed, is given. These quantity-identified items periodically come up on line making it possible to track reappearances statistically and develop theories to explain the consistencies and inconsistencies encountered. Form, size and subject become variables with hundreds of examples and ultimately thousands of reappearances to give weight to interpretation. Hence, what was impossible to know a few years ago now, because of the internet, becomes not only possible; it begins to look in time likely we will conclusively confirm probability of re-appearance and be able to assign weight to variables. For instance, it is already clear that the number of pages is second only to form of binding as a predictor of survival. Size matters.

For 45% of Munsell's production we have item details, print runs and increasing data on frequency of appearance [FOA]. For 55% we have item details and FOA data but not the quantity printed. Based on the statistics developed from the one thousand items whose print runs are known, it should be possible to estimate print runs for material in the second group based on frequency of reappearance and in time to confirm the validity of the research anecdotally. This could lead to a more general print run theory in five years and potentially to a Howes Usiana type of quantity projection for material printed by others. Such a theory will be opposed by some who prefer bookselling be a black art. Collectors, however, will demand clarity as a condition for purchase and the market will adjust. The field has been more an art than a science. Over the next ten years, it becomes more of a science.

So how is information-based collecting going? I live in the efficient market and here share a pastiche of recent Munsell purchases I made mostly on eBay. I acquire material on Abe, other listings sites, at auction and from dealer catalogues but for Munsell printings eBay is well suited to disperse the hodge podge of material that passed through the Munsell presses.

Recently I acquired a dozen items for $772. The most expensive was a small folio 1860 reprint of Hamor's 1615 Virginia. This is Munsell at his gaudiest, one of 200 copies. It cost $311. The great find was a full bound year of the Mechanics' Journal, an 1846-1847 weekly magazine that escaped mention in Munselliana. Munsell and Robert MacFarlane together signed the publisher's statement. This gem cost $182.

A single issue of the Vermont Quarterly Gazetteer opened my eyes to another very attractive publication Munsell printed in the early 1860s. It is beautifully illustrated.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Closing Time, Advance Readers Copy of Uncorrected Proof with a letter from Heller on his personal stationary
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Gates, Bill, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, N Y: Knopf, 2021; first edition, with a handwritten note from Bill Gates
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, first edition, first printing, first issue dust jacket, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Something Happened, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, first edition, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London: John Murray, 1818, in four volumes
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    BROWSE NOW
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD

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