New York: Sold at Auction by George A. Leavitt & Co., 1878-1897. First Edition. Five volumes, large 8vo. (10 3/8" by 7"). Original wrappers (chipping to extremities and partially defective). Interestingly, along top edges a former owner has written the number of the volume: I, II, III, IIII, IIIII (see images), but clearly this copy was never even read. The paper stock in extremely fresh condition: unmarked, without any blemish whatsoever, and almost completely unopened. Item #3256
PRINTED ON LARGE AND FINE PAPER, a superb unopened copy, with ALL the printed lists of prices realized (bound at the end of each volume) and with the biography and 80-page Index bound in at the beginning of Part I. The quality of the thick, white paper stock is remarkable, and rarely found in American imprints dating from the late 19th century.
The Brinley sale has been described as "the first great book sale in the century" (A.E. Newton) and "the greatest sale of Americana ever held" (R.W.G. Vail). While including thousands of fabulous Americana rarities, Brinley's collection is of the greatest possible significance because "he broadened the field of collecting by neglecting nothing" (Joseph Rosenblum, DAB vol. 140, p. 22 et seq.)
Eclipsed in wealth by his contemporaries, James Lenox and John Carter Brown, "Brinley deserves the title of premier Americanist because his was the largest, and in many ways the finest, collection of Americana assembled in the nineteenth century" (Rosenblum) -- The five sales of the Brinley library contained 9501 lots, all of American interest. Although the Lenox collection, with its 11,870 titles, larger, it was not exclusively devoted to Americana; neither was the Hoe collection (sales 1911-1912). Its 14,588 lots probably did not include more books relating to the United States.
Brinley (1817-1875) apparently never worked a day in his life, having inherited his money from his father, a prosperous landowner in Hartford, Connecticut. Although prone to melancholy, he dedicated his life to collecting books about America, in doing applied himself with great energy and sagacity. He is known to have driven through New England searching for books in country churches and old houses, bartering shrewdly with unwilling sellers to secure his many prizes. During the Civil War the price for paper climbed significantly; with inflation, the commercial market for "used paper" emerged, and countless attics across the nation began to be cleaned out. Brinley seized upon these opportunities, and made arrangements with recycling mills to examine the refuse before it was pulped. Brinley scored many treasures out of the garbage. In some instances Brinley had the waste paper delivered directly to his home; in the trash Brinley discovered an Eliot Indian Bible (he would eventually obtain nine copies).
His principal agent was Henry Stevens of Vermont, from whom he bought thousands of books, pamphlets, and manuscripts (major and minor), but Brinley did not have the right of first refusal: Stevens offered almost everything of real significance to Lenox and J.C.B. first. Lenox was a famous tight-wad, and among the items rejected by him was a copy of the 1647 English reprint Bay Psalm Book, by far rarer than the first; Lenox would not allow himself to even consider it at 100 guineas, but Brinley could, and secured it for himself. Lenox never saw another copy; indeed, only the Brinley copy (lot 850, bought by the John Carter Brown Library for $435) and the British Library copies survive, and to this day NYPL must be content with a photostat reproduction of the BL copy).
Another "reject": Brinley bought a perfect copy of the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book that the trustees of the British Museum eventually returned (after holding on to it for several years). Without hesitation he paid Stevens's asking price which was the equivalent of $750. In 1947 the Brinley copy was purchased by Rosenbach on behalf of Yale for $150,000 -- at that time the highest price ever paid for a printed book at auction.
Through Stevens Brinley acquired one and only one incunable, namely a copy of the 42-line "Gutenberg" Bible (Lenox already had one). Now in the Schiede Collection at Princeton, Brinley's copy of B-42 (lot 5839) is a truly exception book, having been bound and beautifully illuminated in Erfurt (see Eric White, Editio Princeps, pp. 230-235). Shockingly, William H. Schiede's own copy of the Brinley sale catalogue (while likewise on large, fine paper) consists of vols. 1-3 only.
It is impossible to describe in brief the many fabulous American firsts in the Brinley collection, but more importantly: Brinley did not focus exclusively on high-spots: indeed, he recognized and appreciated "the entire range of material printed in America -- historical works, sermons, chapbooks, textbooks, psalm books of less exalted stature, and pamphlets of every sort" (Reese, George Brinley and His Library" in: Gazette of the Grolier Club, N.S. 32, 1980, p. 156). In doing so, Brinley rescued from paper mills and garbage heaps early American imprints that today exist in less than a handful of copies. Through the present sale catalogues, Brinley drew attention to the historial -- and commercial -- value of otherwise neglected and/or forgotten materials. In doing so, these catalogues transformed our understanding of the history of America in its broadest possible scope.
Of this Large Paper issue we have located only ONE copy on the market in the last 80 years, namely that which appeared in the 1957 "Midland Notes" catalogue, item No. 66, compiled by the formidable Americana specialist Ernest Wessen of Mansfield, Ohio. Neither the Large Paper issue or the ordinary issue was in the Bibliotheca Bibliographica Breslaueriana.
Cataloguer's note: we have been greatly assisted by Rosenblum's excellent biography of Brinley in DAB, and interested persons are encouraged to consult it and the many references cited therein.