Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Discovery at the Morgan Library

In April 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting the Morgan Library where I made a heart-stopping bibliographical discovery.

To set up the story, it helps to understand the procedures for using the reading room at the Morgan Library.  First, you must make an appointment. Second, you must apply for reader privileges. Third, you must identify the works you wish to consult in their catalogue, so they can be brought to the reading room for your visit. There, the books are kept in a locked safe and brought out one at a time for examination.  For those who haven't used the collections at a library like the Morgan, the procedures may seem formidable, but they are a sensible compromise between the conflicting goals of preserving the collection and making it available to researchers. The staff was gracious and helpful as we arranged my visit by email.

One of the books I wanted to see was a 1742 edition of Hoyle's A Short Treatise of Whist. There are two editions dated 1742. One is the true first edition of Hoyle's first book with the imprint "printed by John Watts for the author." The imprint is significant--Hoyle himself was the publisher and was responsible for the book's design and for selling it. The other edition is a piracy actually printed in early 1743 with the false imprint "printed for W.Webb" and a false date. There is no W. Webb--that was a name used by many printers to disguise their identity when violating a copyright or printing seditious material. For a modern (though inexact) Hollywood analogue see Allan Smithee.

The Morgan catalogue was not clear as to which of the two books they owned. The catalogue gave author, title, and date only, but no publisher information, no page count, and no physical description of the book. I was expecting to see the piracy, however, because ESTC, the English Short Title Catalogue listed the Morgan copy as the piracy.

Both the first edition and the piracy are quite rare. I knew of three copies of the first edition, one at the Bodleian, one at the University of Aberdeen and one in my collection.  Both of the UK copies had been rebound over the years. Mine has the somewhat shabby red morocco binding with ornate gold tooling pictured at left. The Bodleian, the British Library and I each have copies of the Webb piracy and I expected to see a fourth at the Morgan.

Back to the morning of my visit to the Morgan. I entered through security, got a badge, walked through the Renzo Piano atrium, and took the elevator up to the reading room. I checked my bag, bringing only my laptop, a pencil, and paper into the reading room. I introduced myself to the reference librarian and she opened the safe, removed my first book, and laid it on the counter.

That was the jaw-dropping, heart-pounding moment!

The book on the counter was bound in the identical binding as mine! The same red morocco, the same gold decoration, tool-for-tool! I gradually became aware of the implications of the identical bindings. First, both must be original to the book. Second, the binding must have been selected by the publisher. Third, that publisher was Hoyle--this was the binding HE selected for his book! Hoyle was selling the book to his society whist pupils at the enormous price of one guinea (twenty one shillings). The piracy sold variously for one shilling or six pence (half a shilling). Hoyle's customers could afford a deluxe binding and he provided one.

One of the mantras of a bibliographer is to examine as many copies of a book as possible. This story illustrates the wisdom of that mantra. By seeing one more copy, I was able to learn more about how this delightful and important book was designed and sold.

Note: The Morgan catalogue and ESTC have both been updated to show the Morgan copy as a first edition.


  1. I am satisfied that the spurious W. Webb, at the time you mention, was used by Tobias Smollett for publishing many satiric and other works. See my notes at