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The Transit of Venus in Philadelphia 1769

An illustration from the first volume of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, showing the path of the Transit of Venus as observed in Philadelphia in 1769.

One of the disad-vantages of having a quarter of a million books for sale is that sometimes it is easy to forget what you have, even with a database to help you. This morning Ken [BTC’s cataloguer Ken Giese, who works on archives and pre-20th Century material for us] walked into my office and said, “So, this Transit of Venus…” Having just had my first jolt of caffeine, and having spent the weekend trying to get at least one of my children the least bit excited about witnessing a celestial event that will not occur again in their lifetimes, I immediately jumped in, “Corey [BTC’s photographer, Corey Bechelli, with whom I share an office] and I were just talking about it. We might go up to the roof around 6pm. We figure we’ll have an excellent view from there and I brought in binoculars to make one of those safe viewing thingies [caffeine apparently not doing much for my vocabulary of astronomical instruments just yet].” (BTC’s flat-top roof was featured in a previous blog post)

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It is not often that one discovers the work of an overlooked or forgotten genius, or a previously-unknown work of an established master. This is, of course, the hope which moves us to carefully examine all sorts of periodical publications and ephemera. So when Tom asked me to catalog two large folio volumes of the Philadelphia-based Saturday Evening Post, from 1827 and 1828, I was pleased to find the puzzle poem “Enigma” attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, and “Psalm 139th” by his brother Henry Poe. Perhaps the most interesting contributions to these volumes are not the Poeiana, but rather a whole series of botanical sketches and other contributions by an eccentric genius with the evocative name Rafinesque. More on him further down. Here is the unsigned “Enigma,” from the March 10 issue of 1827:
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As the New York Times reported today, some sleuthing by a scholar at Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries discovered that 74 volumes at the Washington University in St. Louis were, unbeknown that institution, from the personal library of Thomas Jefferson during the final stage of his life.

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Eminent Victorian Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), biologist and writer, is best known today as Darwin’s greatest advocate and patriarch of a family of successful scientists and writers. Many of his Lectures and Lay Sermons and other writings can still be read today with pleasure and profit. He received little formal education and was self-taught. Physical evidence revealing how he made himself into Darwin’s “Bulldog” came to light at BTC when we came across a copy of an astrological treatise with extensive annotations in Huxley’s hand. They date from 1842, when he was 17, during his self-described Lehrjahre. Here is one particularly fulsome example:
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Much has been written about the great color-plate books of the Regency Period – and rightly so. To give just three examples: Humphry Repton, a man of privilege who enjoyed royal favor, published his great books on landscape gardening and architecture from the 1790s to about 1820; in 1808 Rudolph Ackermann published the Microcosm of London, with many of its 104 plates of contemporary London scenes designed by the great caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson; and from 1814 through 1825 William Daniell published his epic Voyage Round Great Britain, consisting of 308 plates. The illustrated plates in these lavish works are aquatint engravings printed in one to three colors, with tinting and additional colors added by hand. A great many of mainly immigrant women and children were needed to hand color the prints.

These books have survived in large numbers relative to the size of the original editions, and one can consult R. V. Tooley’s bibliography for detailed accounts of the various issues of an edition and the various printed states of individual plates. By contrast, relatively little is known about the many hand-colored chapbooks, pamphlets, satiric and salacious prints, and associated ephemera from this period, most of which have long disappeared.

We recently acquired an unusual pamphlet published by one John Fairburn that falls exactly into this nether world, which is only now becoming better known to us thanks in large part to historian Iain McCalman’s 1988 study, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.

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Long before Darwin’s Origin was published in 1859 there was in Victorian society a strong popular interest in natural history. Not only did the microscope reveal previously hidden wonders, exposing for the first time the sexual life of plants, but advances in printing technology made it possible to reproduce and disseminate such images – in color – among the new and rapidly growing middle and working class populations. An excellent example of this historically unique intersection between science, technology and religion just appeared on my desk: the 1855 edition of Rev. Charles Kingsley’s Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore.

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Here’s Kenny at BTC — in the trade at last! Tom hired me fresh from Goucher College after a grant-funded project to catalog their hidden special collections came to an end. Since I was taken on board in part to research and catalog BTC’s growing collections of books and ephemera printed before 1900, it is only fitting that my first post should begin with a look at an early English imprint: Thomas Godwyn’s 1641 edition of Moses and Aaron. This was a popular treatise on the rites and customs of the ancient Hebrews — “untill Christ his comming,” and this particular copy has some inscriptions and manuscript annotations of interest.

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