On Monday, February 3rd, 1890, the personal library of Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow came up for auction in New York City. One of the major American book sales of the late 19th century, the auction of Barlow’s collection was also a watershed moment in the history of the Boston Public Library.
During his lifetime, Barlow had been one of the most successful corporate attorneys in the United States. Already a wealthy man before the age of 30, he went on to amass a tremendous fortune brokering transactions and settling disputes between major interests ranging from railroad companies, to mining ventures, to newspapers, to national governments. Over time, Barlow used his fortune to build a substantial collection of art and books, assembling one of the finest privately held libraries of early and rare Americana in the country. Thus, the sale of Barlow’s books at auction the year after his death drew interest from institutions and individual collectors around the world.
As it happened, the BPL, with its rare books collection then in a growing, but still nascent state, was particularly interested in the Barlow sale. Though exceedingly strong in certain areas, the library’s collections were still somewhat deficient when it came to rare and early Americana. Partially as a point of pride, then, the Board of Trustees saw the sale of Barlow’s books as an opportunity to both build the BPL’s collections and to bolster the library’s reputation at a single stroke.
In January, the trustees submitted an urgent plea for funds to the City of Boston, stating that the BPL’s successful participation in the sale was “highly necessary to enable it to maintain its rank among the great libraries in the world, and to meet the just demands of the people of Boston.”1 The City Council was receptive to the idea and immediately appropriated the then-enormous sum of $20,000 to be applied to purchases made at the sale.2 When head librarian Mellen Chamberlain arrived at the auction rooms, he was therefore ready to buy.
Over the course of the week-long sale, Chamberlain made hundreds of purchases, but on the final day he brought away the crown jewel of the auction: an early manuscript copy of the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Entered in the Barlow catalog as lot no. 2765, The true copie of the court booke of the Governor and society of the Massachusetts Bay in New England contains records of the pre-migration business of the Massachusetts Bay Company beginning in 1629, along with the court records of the colony through 1646.
Chamberlain’s purchase of the manuscript was a blockbuster acquisition for the BPL. Though primarily a copy of a slightly earlier manuscript, the Court booke is nevertheless an important and, in certain ways, unique document. The State Library of Massachusetts had attempted to purchase it from Barlow in 1865.3 During the auction, Chamberlain faced stiff competition, particularly from the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, though he eventually prevailed with a winning bid of $6,500.4
The True copie of the court booke fetched the highest price in the auction by far. At a hammer price of $2,900, the runner-up was the first Latin edition of Christopher Columbus’ letter announcing his arrival in the New World, printed in 1493. This tiny, eight-page book also went to the BPL, along with an extraordinarily rare copy of a pamphlet known as Mourt’s relation, which Chamberlain purchased for $350. Printed in 1622, Mourt’s relation details the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth and their first months in New England. It includes the earliest surviving text of the Mayflower Compact, and ends with the first celebration of thanksgiving in the colony.
Chamberlain also acquired a rare copy of Anne Bradstreet’s Tenth Muse (1650), Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1589), and the 1613 edition of Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages. In total, the BPL acquired 336 items at the Barlow sale, many of which, like the few listed above, remain among the rarest and most important items in the library’s collections.5
- Reports of the proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the year commencing Monday, January 6, 1890, and ending Saturday, January 3, 1891 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1891) p. 18.
- Ibid., p. 47, 49, 90-91.
- Catalogue of the library of the late Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow. (New York: Douglas Taylor, 1889) pp. 435-436 (lot no. 2765).
- The queries magazine (vol. 6, no. 3: March, 1890) p. 80. See also: BPL Bulletin (vol. 9, no. 1: April, 1890) pp. 206-208.
- See the BPL’s annotated copy of the Barlow sale catalogue (Z1207 .B259), which shows the specific lots purchased by the library.