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.
Marjorie Wiggin Prescott wrote Stray Thoughts of a Book Collector in 1932, in which she describes her approach to book collecting.
“The field for bibliophiles is so large that it is difficult to choose the location where one hopes to build; one frequently feels like a child selecting a candy from an enormous box of sweets. At best, so little can be remembered of all there is to learn about books and literature, that it is wise to settle in a small corner of this book-site and it is advisable to build well and slowly, rather than erect an entire village and try to cover the available acreage too rapidly.”
In 1933, Genevieve B. Earle wrote an article for The American Book Collector called, “Pandora Buys a Book: A Collector in Search of an Author,” in which she lamented that she did not know of any other women book collectors.
“Ever since, I’ve had an exciting time with books, bookshops, auction sales, etc., but never once have I seen or heard of a woman book-collector. Where do women book-collectors keep themselves? Have they no clubs, no haunts, no rendez-vous? The Land of Bibliophilia must be the Garden of Eden with the Adams in complete possession of all their ribs. …Recently I heard Dr. Rosenbach discuss in a fascinating way women as book-collectors; but his ladies were dear, dead, and gone,–Kings’ Mistresses, Queens and Princesses of Yesterday. Is it possible that in this most gorgeous field of hobbies, we have left you, my Brethren, an uncontested domain? Will the gate be forever barred to us? Strange, for it seems to be the one fine leisure interest men and women can pursue together.”
In response, there was an anonymous letter to the editor the following month, which asked:
“Why not? Why cannot the women have a ‘Hroswitha Club’ run along the same lines that the Grolier Club is for the men? I feel sure that many of our women librarians, collectors, bibliographers, and perhaps book-sellers would appreciate such a meeting-place where they could talk over their hobbies with fellow-enthusiasts.”
The Hroswitha Club of women collectors was in fact founded eleven years later in 1944. Whether this exchange of letters in The American Book Collector provided the inspiration is unknown.
In 1960, Miriam Y. Holden gave members of the Hroswitha Club a tour of her library on women’s history. She told them:
“We have all of us learned that the collecting instinct can be a most rewarding source of pleasure and satisfaction for the collector, regardless of the fact that no collection is ever complete or ever perfect. I disagree with Oliver Wendell Holmes who thinks ‘Every library should try to be complete on something, if it were only the history of pin heads.’
The search for the unattainable is always fascinating. The fun of seeking and securing becomes a form of sport. We are continually lured on, in spite of ourselves, by dealers and their unending flood of tempting catalogues in every language and from all corners of the earth.”
“What nobody still seems to know about woman, even at this mid-point of the twentieth century, is the reality of her historic meaning as a potent agent, in creating the patterns of society which are known to history. To reveal woman’s part in the making of long history, is the purpose of my library. I am trying to collect and make available to historians, students, and writers, the records of Woman’s Role in Civilization and show what her political and legal and economic status in various centuries and countries was, and what progress she was able to make in education, science, culture, and religions.”
The Miriam Y Holden collection of 6,000 volumes on women’s history is now housed at Firestone Library, Princeton.
Frances Hooper’s pamphlet A Collector in Being, was also a talk given to the Hroswitha Club in 1973 about the origins of her collecting. She wrote:
“It is very pleasant and absorbing to be a collector. You just naturally are one. Or, I guess you aren’t.
There are three main difficulties, I have found, about collecting. 1–to keep on the main track of your principal collections and not to go afield. 2–to find the time to attend to what you already have and to enjoy these in depth. 3–to find compatible spirits with whom to share your enthusiasms and interests.”
There are big and little collectors and steady ones and spasmodic ones. And, people collect anything. Buttons to castles. There is no explaining the urge. If you have it, you can’t resist it. And it can so easily take you over. Take over your common sense and any sound monetary judgment if you ever had any.”
Frances Hooper’s collection of Kate Greenaway is now at the Hunt Library, Carnegie Mellon University. Her Virginia Woolf collection is at Smith College.
Mary Hyde Eccles: A Miscellany of Her Essays and Addresses, published by the Grolier Club in 2002, which includes the delightful essay “Grolier Watching, by a Lady,” recounting her experiences with the Club before women were first admitted to membership in 1976.
In “A Library of Dr. Samuel Johnson,” she describes how her collecting interest started:
“My true interest in rare books began with graduate work in Elizabethan drama, and the determination (how it occurred I do not remember) of studying all the plays produced in London between 1600 and 1605 in their earliest available editions. This whimsy made me impose upon the good nature of custodians at the Huntington and Folger libraries, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection and the famous Rosenbach Company. There is an emotional pleasure that is indescribable in touching the past so closely. This is not to say that such material must not be supplemented with all the relevant books of modern scholarship. It must. However the contemporary record strikes with a direct force that its translation can never recreate. I found myself ranging far afield, calling for celebrated books which had no bearing upon my subject, simply to see them. Though wholly aware of the deception, the custodians, without exception, were indulgent.”
The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts is now at Houghton Library, Harvard.