New York: The Authors, 1854. First Edition. 8vo. Original publisher's cloth (spine chipped at head and tail, cloth covers sunned, library label removed from spine, other early library markings for which see below). A good and tight copy. Good. Item #4015
THE ORIGINS OF THE INDEPENDENT WOMAN BOOK AGENT IN AMERICA, AND "A REAL CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN TRAVEL LITERATURE" (Clark). This fascinating work has been shamefully ignored by scholars of the American 19th-century, and merits careful reading by students, scholars, and all persons interested in the book trade, slavery, unmarried "working women" traveling alone, and the patriarchal culture they could not escape.
Underappreciated is the role of women in the distribution of American books before, during, and after the Civil War; thanks to "lady agents," the book market was expanded while simultaneously threatening existing cultural practices. Female book agents encountered stereotypes and denigration, and yet to a small degree, book canvassing granted at least means of living to unmarried American women, who sought a path less stifling than the two pervailing ones, namely: 1) marry; or 2) die.
The present volume contains beautiful (unsigned) letters written by both Mendell and Hosmer, who in 1853 traveled up and down the East Coast in the capacity of book canvassers, teachers, and governesses. Starting in the Ellensburg, NY, the reader is taken by foot, carriage and train through upstate New York, Canada, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, back to New York, and on to Boston. Many letters were written from the South and concern slavery; in one instance the author attempts to sell a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to a lady of Richmond, VA. Although critical of slavery, the authors reported the slaves were apparently "well clad, and appear well fed and happy" (p. 249; see also pp. 185-186 and 204-206).
On p. 110 the author meets her "mate," Miss Charlotte Hosmer, an orphan girl "who desires to be my traveling companion and partner in the book business." At that time Hosmer was engaged as a governess in New Jersey; as it turns out, the family would not release her from her bond and she could not meet the author in Washington, as planned. Mendell turns to teaching and erstwhile a governess herself, before returning to book canvassing. That the letters are unsigned is unfortunate, but this omission does not detract from the book's excellent content.
Our copy has interesting contemporary annotations on pp. 109, 120, 121 which suggests that the inscriber may have had some knowledge of Sarah Mendell. Furthermore, it has a long and intriguing provenance. There is a strictly contemporary inscription on first blank: Jane M. (Marie, née Mills) Bingham (1821-1894), "Presented by Miss Mendell, sister of one of the authors, in the name of her sister now deceased, Adams, NY 55." --> likely bequeathed to her daughter Jane (nickname "Jennie") Bingham (1859-1933), author and litterateur who was featured in "A Woman of the Century" for her charitable work --> her gift to Folts Mission Institute Library (in Herkimer, NY located 80 miles northwest of Albany, now defunct) with bookplate and accession number [?] on Dedication page (now partially erased); the Institute was a Methodist training school for young women (Bingham taught there and was a great benefactor of the library); the Institute ended operations in 1928 --> Dorothy Sloan Collection of Women and Their Work.
Howes M-513. Sabin 47798. Clark III, 361. See Natalie Jean Marine-Street, "'Agents Wanted': Sales, Gender, and the Making of Consumer Markets in America, 1830-1930" (Stanford University PhD dissertation 2016), especially Chapter 1: "A 'New Avenue to Industry and Independence': The Emergence of the Lady Book Agent."