The Library of Frances Mary Richardson Currer

Frances Mary Richardson Currer, photograph of a portrait by Masquerier. Image courtesy of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

Frances Mary Richardson Currer, photograph of a portrait by Masquerier, 1807. Image courtesy of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

To understand the largely 19th and 20th century history of American women book collectors, it is helpful to know the standard by which they were judged. In 1906, the London Times declared Miss Richardson Currer to be “the greatest woman book collector.” The New York Sun sprang to the defense of American bibliophiles,  claiming, “That title properly belongs … to Mrs. [Abby] Pope. Miss Currer formed an extensive library but not an important one.” The Publishers’ Weekly, covering the controversy, added the name of Cynthia Morgan St. John and concluded that “Each of these ladies deserves a fair and enduring place in the annals of bibliophilism as a well-informed and fearless book hunter.”

Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861) is often regarded as the first major female book collector. In Reminiscences of a Literary Life (1836), Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote that she was “at the head of all female Collectors in Europe.” Seymour De Ricci called her “England’s earliest female bibliophile” in English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts (1930). While earlier women, mostly noble ladies, had collected finely-bound books as a pastime, it was often claimed that they did not do so from a true love of books. Miss Richardson Currer clearly loved books for their own sake. She inherited both the Richardson and Currer estates from her father, including a substantial library, to which she added greatly herself. It is also worth noting that she lived near the Brontë family and may have been the inspiration for Charlotte Brontë’s pen name of Currer Bell. Continue reading

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In Pursuit of a Collector: Abby Ellen Pope, 1858-1894

Mrs. Norton Q. Pope

Mrs. Norton Q. Pope, photograph from Laura Geddes Smith, “Law Lectures for Women at the University of the City of New York,” The University Magazine vol. 10, no. 6 (June 1894): p. 256.

Abby Ellen Pope was one of the earliest American women book collectors to achieve national fame for her collection, although much of her life remains mysterious. The descriptions of her magnificent library are tantalizing, but reveal little of the woman behind the collection. The most comprehensive source for her biography is an article by Charles Ryskamp, published in The Book Collector in 1984.

The bookseller Bernard Quaritch described Mrs. Pope as “a very strong minded looking woman.” A portrait of Mrs. Pope painted by Benjamin Constant was sold after her death and its present location is unknown. Until recently, there were no known photographs of her. I found a picture of Mrs. Pope in a magazine article about the Woman’s Legal Education Society, of which she was a founder and director.

Abby Ellen Hanscom was born in Massachusetts in 1858 to Charlotte Ellen Pratt and John Hanscom. The family moved to Chicago in 1872, then to Brooklyn around 1885. We have no information about Abby Hanscom’s early education or how she began to collect books at such a high level. Early on, Abby must have received financial support from her father, a businessman who may or may not have been a book collector himself. Afterwards, her husband Norton Q. Pope apparently took an interest in book collecting as well, and certainly supported her own efforts.  Continue reading

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Bookmaking on the Distaff Side

This gallery contains 30 photos.

Bookmaking on the Distaff Side is one of my favorite books in my women bibliophiles collection. It is a lovely book, produced in 1937 by an association of female printers called the Distaff Side. The book itself is a a compilation … Continue reading

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Estelle Doheny, Collector and Philanthropist

Estelle Doheny. Image source: Facebook page of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation.

Estelle Doheny. Image source: Facebook page of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation.

Carrie Estelle Betzold Doheny was born in Philadelphia in 1875. After high school, she worked as a telephone operator at the Petroleum Exchange Center until her marriage to oil tycoon Edward Laurence Doheny in 1900. Although overshadowed by her husband’s fame during her lifetime, she later achieved her own recognition as one of the most renowned American women book collectors of the twentieth century.

In 1901, the couple moved into a house at 8 Chester Place in Los Angeles, known thereafter as the Doheny Mansion. The mansion, lavishly redecorated with the finest artwork and furnishings by Mrs. Doheny, remained her primary residence until her death in 1958. Its famous rarities included the Pompeian Room, a spectacular marble and gold room with a Tiffany glass dome, and the Music Room, which contained a Steinway grand piano entirely gilded in gold leaf. Continue reading

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Miniature Books About Books

My miniature book collection.

Miniature book collecting is an occupation that can quickly take over your life. Miniature books cover a great range of time periods, geographical regions, and subjects. To restrain my collecting impulses, I only collect non-dollhouse miniature books if they fall into one of my other areas of interest, such as women bibliophiles, imaginary books, or books about books. Continue reading

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Women Collectors in Their Own Words

From The Book-Hunter in London (1895).

Engraved frontispiece by L. Du Guernier to Steele’s Ladies Library (vol 1, 1714). From The Book-Hunter in London (1895).

It can be difficult to define exactly what it means to be a book collector or what kind of activity counts as collecting. Traditional definitions of book collecting have often neglected or even specifically excluded women. Therefore, I’m particularly interested in descriptions of book collecting by women themselves.

In Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven M. Gelber observes:

“So pervasive was the conflation of men, market, and collecting that it has been difficult for most observers to even see that women were collecting, albeit in a style that was different from men. …The only women collectors taken seriously by men were those who collected on men’s terms. Those whose hobby was aesthetic or sentimental were stealth-collectors who simply disappeared from the historical radar.”

In Anatomy of Bibliomania, Holbrook Jackson claimed that “Book love is as masculine (although not as common) as growing a beard.” Thomas Dibdin wrote in The Bibliomania, or Book-Madness that bibliomania “has almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex, and among these, to people in the higher and middling classes.” Despite that perception, women have occasionally experienced the disease of bibliomania themselves. The culinary collector Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote in My Cookery Books that “Dr. Hill Burton defines [book collecting] first as a ‘human frailty,’ then as a ‘peculiar malady,’ which is the definition I accept. Certainly I can trace my attack to its deadly germ.” In his essay “Mary Hyde and the Unending Pursuit,” Jerry Morris quotes collector Laura Barnes from a Rare Book Review article:

“I was recently informed, in a friendly but insistent manner, that only men can be great book collectors. It seems that men alone possess the necessary obsessive-compulsive behaviour to build important collections. Now, I am not one to seek out – let alone brag about – being afflicted with a psychological disorder, but I do consider myself a serious collector.”

To get beyond general claims about women as the enemies of books, or bibliomania as a strictly masculine pursuit, it helps to go straight to the source. Essays and memoirs by women bibliophiles can help us to understand their experiences and philosophies of book collecting in their own words.
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Recent Acquisitions: New Ladies in My Library

New books

One of the difficulties of looking for women book collectors is that they are not always identified as such. One can search for variations on “women book collectors,” “lady bibliophiles,” and so on, but this approach is hardly comprehensive. Skimming book titles and indexes of books about books looking for female names is another approach, but quickly becomes overwhelming. Unless you already know the name you’re looking for, it’s hard to narrow down the results.

Just when I thought I’d exhausted my current search strategies, I stumbled across a simple new idea.While browsing the Oak Knoll website, I came across an auction catalogue of a woman’s library, one whose name I had never seen before. I needed to figure out what combination of search terms would produce more items like that. It finally occurred to me that all similar catalogues from that time period would preface the woman’s name with “Mrs.” or “Miss.” A title search for the keywords “Mrs.” and “library” or “collection” brought up a few familiar titles and a number of new ones, which I promptly ordered.

Names new to me:

  • Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard
  • Mrs. Laetitia Hollier
  • Mrs. Christian R. Holmes
  • Mrs. E.F. Hutton
  • Rose Standish Nichols
  • Mrs. Whitelaw Reid
  • Louise Elkins Sinkler
  • Mrs. William A. Taylor
  • Mrs. Henry Walters

I will be trying this search in other library catalogs and book search engines to see what else may be out there. Meanwhile, I need to do some more research on these new names and add them to my bibliography.

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