Reconstructing the Pope Library, Part 2: The Books

In the first part of Reconstructing the Pope Library, I discussed Abby Pope’s house in Brooklyn, which was demolished in 1950. In this post, I will examine the sources of information for her books and where they went.

The Books

“A list of the notable books [of the Pope library] would be, practically, a catalogue of the library.”The Bookman, August 1895, p. 70.

Unfortunately, no complete catalogue of the Abby Pope library has survived. However, a number of the titles she owned were listed in various descriptions of her library, both during her lifetime and following her untimely death at the age of 36. Two of the most detailed accounts are from Mary Avery’s “The Library of a Brooklyn Bibliophile,” Pratt Institute Monthly (1894) and Daniel Tredwell’s Monograph on Privately Illustrated Books (rev. ed., 1892).

Abby’s husband Norton Q. Pope sold her library to Dodd, Mead in 1895, a year after her death. Dodd, Mead announced the collection for sale beginning on October 22nd, 1895, and the prospectus stated that no catalogue would be issued. However, beginning in March 1896, Dodd, Mead began to issue catalogues of “selections from the unsold portion of the Pope library, with additions from other sources.” Catalogues no. 40-43 consisted of:

  • Early English literature
  • 19th century English literature
  • Americana
  • American broadsides, maps, autographs, and manuscripts

The Dodd, Mead catalogues do contain items from other sources, so each entry must be confirmed before it can be added to the official list of Abby Pope’s books, although many are likely from her library. 

The introduction to Catalogue 40 stated that the first four would be followed by catalogues on “Bibliography and Publications of Societies, First Editions of American Authors, Early Printed Books, and Books in Foreign Languages, Fine Art and Illustrated Books, etc., etc.” This planned series of catalogues was cut short by the collector Robert Hoe’s purchase of the remaining Pope collection in 1896. As a result, some of Abby Pope’s most prominent books never appeared in the Dodd, Mead catalogues, although they are mentioned in other sources. 

By that time, the collection had been available for several months and some of the rarities had already been sold, but many treasures remained for Hoe. A number of the Pope books appeared again in the Hoe sales of 1911-1912, although Abby’s name was mostly mentioned in connection with a single book, the Caxton Morte d’Arthur. From there, her books were scattered to a variety of places, their connection to her library usually forgotten.

By cross-referencing the Avery and Tredwell accounts, the Dodd, Mead catalogues, the Hoe sale catalogues, and other sources, I am attempting to reconstruct a list of the high points from Abby Pope’s collection. This may eventually amount to perhaps 300 titles from a collection that likely totaled over 2,700 items. In many cases, the most I can do is take a brief mention from a newspaper article or book sale catalogue and match it to a complete citation in the English Short Title Catalogue or other standard source. For the more distinctive items, such as incunabula, manuscripts, signed bindings, and extra-illustrated works, I can sometimes go on to identify where she purchased it and trace the provenance through subsequent sales to its final location. So far I have citations for 273 titles, with known locations for perhaps 85.

Part of my working spreadsheet for the Pope library reconstruction.

Price Code

One of the frustrating things about tracking Abby Pope’s books is that she didn’t use a bookplate or write her name in books, so there’s very little tangible evidence of her ownership in the books themselves.

While I was combing through Google Books search results, I came across an interesting entry in a Dodd & Livingston sale catalogue from 1911 for Abby Pope’s copy of Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages (1613). The description said: “According to Mrs. Pope’s cipher in the back the book cost, probably about 1890, $850 and the binding by Lortic $145 more, or $995 for the volume.”

The cipher seemed noteworthy, and it turned out I had actually seen examples of these coded inscriptions in some of her books at the Huntington Library. I was still in the very early information-gathering stages then, so I’d noted them down but hadn’t really pursued that line of inquiry further until I saw this entry.

Fortunately, the catalogue description, particularly the orange morocco binding by Lortic, gave me enough information to trace the book to the Library of Congress. The book has been digitized, and the back flyleaf still contains Abby Pope’s code right where they said it was in 1911. It was thrilling to go from finding this catalogue description all the way to viewing the book online and seeing her original inscription in her own hand.

Abby Pope's price cipher in the back of Champlain's Voyages. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Abby Pope’s price code in the back of Champlain’s Voyages. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Price-codes, as I learned, are ten-letter words or phrases used by book dealers and sometimes collectors to substitute for numbers when recording the price of a book. For further reading on the history of price-codes, see Ian Jackson’s book on the Prices-Codes of the Book-Trade (2nd edition, 2017). Robert Dodd and Luther S. Livingston, formerly of Dodd, Mead, were the same men who had handled the sale of Abby Pope’s library in 1896, so they would have been familiar with her books and clearly knew the key to her price-code.

With Dodd & Livingston’s solution provided, I was able to fill in six of the letter-number substitutions that would make up a full price-code. Conveniently, this particular example of her code is an equation instead of a single price, so the solution can be checked simply by making sure the math adds up.

I stared at the six letters for a while and finally they jogged my memory of a brief sentence from Charles Ryskamp’s article, “Abbie Pope: Portrait of a Bibliophile” (1984). He had said, “Her price code it would seem was ‘Hope and try.'” He went on to say “Determination was central to her character,” so when I first read that passage I thought he was just speaking metaphorically about her personal motto for buying books. Now, having learned more about the use of price-codes, I realized that he had meant the statement literally.

And there is the complete code, “Hope and Try.” It turned out that I had rediscovered something that others had already known. Paul Needham decoded Abby Pope’s price-code while working with the Caxton Morte d’Arthur at the Morgan Library in the 1970s, the source of Charles Ryskamp’s information. Her inscription in that volume is noted in the Morgan Library catalog: H.y.a.y.y. ++.

It was still satisfying to work it out for myself, while tracing another book from Abby Pope’s collection along the way. Now that I know what to look for, I have been able to find a number of other examples of her price-code in books. They do not appear in every book that she owned, but I’m sure there are more out there. If you do come across one, please let me know.

Reconstructing the Pope Library

This reconstruction of Abby Pope’s library captures a moment in time. Many of her books came from the sales of other great libraries, including those of John Payne Collier, George Brinley, Rush C. Hawkins, and Samuel L. M. Barlow. The books remained together on the shelves of her library for perhaps ten years before being dispersed through Dodd, Mead and the Robert Hoe sales. Some books went directly from the Hoe sales to a permanent home in an institution such as the Huntington Library or the Morgan Library, while others passed through multiple owners and surfaced again in subsequent sales.

With Abby Pope’s library demolished and her books scattered around the country, it is difficult even to know the true extent of her collection. By tracing these few known titles and their current locations, we can get a glimpse of what must have been a truly remarkable collection, built by an extraordinary woman. Abby Pope was not born into the upper classes, but managed to enter the exclusive world of high-end book collecting at a time when it was not particularly welcoming to women. Had she lived longer, with her early start in book collecting, she could have given Morgan, Huntington, Folger and the rest a run for their money during the Golden Age of American book collecting. Just imagine what she might have achieved with a few more decades to build her library.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all who have generously helped me so far with this research project, including: Meghan Constantinou, Grolier Club Library; the staff at the Huntington Library; Sheelagh Bevan, the Morgan Library; Teri Osborn, the William Reese Company; Paul Needham, Princeton University Library; and Elizabeth Fuller, the Rosenbach Library.

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One Response to Reconstructing the Pope Library, Part 2: The Books

  1. A happy note from this former Brooklynite (Plaza Street West, Park Slope, 1982-2012):
    Another fine blog post from Emi Hastings on the distinguished 19thC Brooklyn book collector: Abby Ellen Pope. Many thanks to you, Emi, for a fine job locating essential information on Pope’s library, collecting habits, the disposition of her library, and her encrypted price code. If you do further work on Pope (and we all hope that you will), do engage some Brooklyn specialists ~ and do visit ol’ Brooklyn! You already located excellent information on Pope in the venerable Brooklyn Daily Eagle (now online), but may I suggest that you also investigate the dedicated Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza (I was there often, steps from my door); likewise, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Heights. And there are some Brooklyn stalwarts who may have, or know of, some of Pope’s books, such as architectural publisher (emeritus), Clem Labine, Berkeley Place, Park Slope, Brooklyn (I was his editor for many years), and any of the family of the late Evelyn & Everett Ortner (Park Slope). The physical lot (location) of the original Pope residence, 241 Park Place at Vanderbilt Ave., is now, sadly, a dry cleaners (see Google Street Views), but it pleases me greatly to now realize that I had connected with Abby Pope in about 1997 on my way down Vanderbilt Avenue to St Joseph’s College, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, to teach a memorable Shakespeare seminar (good students!). All to say: The blog posts from Emi Hastings on Abby Ellen Pope are a cultural treasure. And a gift. ///

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