BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SECRETS HIDDEN IN THE BINDING
We recently bought a set of Matthew Henry’s well-known six-volume Exposition of the Old and New Testaments which provides an exhaustive verse by verse study of the Bible. This is a relatively common work of the 18th century, and due to its its bulkiness and subject matter, doesn’t tend to hold much appeal for collectors. A set can reasonably be obtained for a modest few hundred dollars.
So, why did we buy it?
What makes this particular set fascinating, and which shows there are plenty of discoveries to be made in old books, are the pages that were pasted as publisher’s waste inside the book. Paper was expensive and bookbinders were loath to throw our scraps that could be re-used as binding material. Many important discoveries are made from “binder’s waste” – even fragments of the Gutenberg Bible and otherwise lost manuscripts.
Here is a full description off our set that highlights the interesting leaves pasted-in.
Matthew Henry. An exposition on the Old and New Testament : In five volumes. … Wherein each chapter is summed up in its contents ; the sacred text inserted at large in distinct paragraphs ; each paragraph reduced to its proper heads ; the sense given, and largely illustrated: with practical remarks and observations. By Matthew Henry, late minister of the Gospel. London : Printed for John and Paul Knapton in Ludgate-street, Thomas Cox under the Royal-Exchange ; Richard Ford and Richard Hett both in the Poultry, Aaron Ward in Little-Britain, and Thomas Longman in Pater Noster Row, 1737. [i.e. 1737-1738]. Five Folios, 40 x 26.5 cm., internally some toning, foxing and intermittent stains, Kings II in vol. I lacking some pages at rear, toning and discoloration to paste-downs with some cracking to boards and splitting of sheets, t.p. of Vol. III pasted at a later date over a Roger and Fowle publishing sheet, corner to Vol. 1 of first signatures cut without loss and some singeing. Bindings with general scuffing and discoloration, some chipping, and peeling to head of spine of Vol. 2.
WITH NINE UNCUT AND EXTREMELY RARE EARLY AMERICAN PUBLISHER’S SHEETS USED AS WASTE FOR PASTE-DOWNS AND, THEREFORE, ALMOST CERTAINLY AN UNUSUAL EXAMPLE OF A SET OF EARLY AMERICAN FOLIO BINDINGS.
The nine paste-downs (more formally ten, but one is obscured at a later date) comprise repeated sheets of the first signature from a run of “A letter from William Shirley, Esq; governor of Massachusetts-Bay, to His Grace the Duke of Newcastle : with a journal of the siege of Louisbourg, and other operations of the forces, during the expedition against the French settlements on Cape-Breton; drawn up at the desire of the Council and House of Representatives of the province of Massachusetts-Bay; approved and attested by Sir William Pepperrell, and the other principal officers who commanded in the said expedition. Published by authority. [Boston] : London: printed 1746. Boston: re-printed by Rogers and Fowle, for Joshua Blanchard, at the Bible and Crown in Dock-Square, 1746. Ref: Evans 5863
Shirley’s letter is one of the most important contemporary accounts of the French and Indian Wars, specifically King George’s War. It was the first important English victory in America, when a New England colonial force, aided by a British fleet captured Louisbourg (present-day Cape Breton Island). “A provincial army under William Pepperell sailed from Boston on March 24, 1745, & was joined by a British fleet under Commodore Warren. Louisbourg surrendered on June 15—The diary spans March 24-June 17.” [Goodspeed Cat. 549, 1968]
This set is of particular American bibliographical importance. Uncut sheets of the Boston printing could only conceivably have been available to the Rogers and Fowle or, possibly, the bookseller Joshua Blanchard with whom they corroborated. Blanchard is recorded by Isaiah Thomas in 1810 as “as a dealer in English editions, in stationery, &c., but finally he confined his trade solely to English goods.” It is quite likely that Blanchard imported from London the unbound sheets of Carey‘s highly regarded Exposition and then had Rogers and Fowle bind them for a customer. The bindings are almost certainly American; the leather is more coarse than typical English bindings and the boards have internal crude stitching under the paste-downs which one sees in early American tree bark bindings, but generally not in their more refined English counterparts.
Evidence that ties these bookbindings to Rogers and Fowle is of particular interest as there is scant surviving information about their workshop. Sometime prior to 1752 (and likely in the 1740s after this Shirley tract was issued), Isaiah Thomas (who was earlier indentured as an apprentice to Boston printer, Zachariah Fowle, where he learned his trade.) indicates that Gamaliel Rogers and Daniel Fowle printed “an edition of about two thousand copies of the New Testament, 12mo., for D. Henchman, and two or three other principal booksellers.” This would have been the first printing of the New Testament in America, but no copies have survived, and modern scholarship takes the unsurprising view that Thomas was mistaken in his claim. Needless to say, if Rogers and Fowle indeed bound this large set of commentaries, as evidence suggests, it would indicate a larger and more sophisticated workshop than previously supposed, and certainly one capable of undertaking a substantial printing run, by Colonial standards, of the famous bibliographical ghost-printing of the NT.
Overall, this set is is interesting from many angles including the influence of Henry’s Exposition in the Colonies, with parallels to the extensive commentaries and writings of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. It is also a fine example of the English-American book-trade, when it was illegal for any printer in the Colonies to produce the English Bible, and the import trade flourished. Most importantly, it may shed important light on the operations of one of Boston’s early and important printing establishments.
So, what is the set worth?
As I said, if this was just a regular set, it would not be an easy set to sell and may well only command $250 or so – despite being an impressive undertaking that no doubt took countless hours of toil and sweat in the 18th century to produce.
If we had the complete tract of 31 pages of this very rare Boston printing of the Shirley’s famous Letter, it might reasonably command $4000-6000 at auction. However, we only have several interesting uncut sheets from that printing – not the complete work. The sheets are of great rarity, but the market for them is highly specialized and narrow. It is one of those cases of rare books, but rarer buyers. Still, they are a worthy addition to many University libraries and would be of interest to scholars. As such, we have priced them at $1800.