Book – 1815 Library of Congress Bookplate; As seen in The Journal Of Library History; Article identified Work of Printer William Elliot, Washington, D.C.; All hand made using a letterpress


I had gotten into the habit of checking for books on American History and ships on eBay.uk.  I was always hoping that I would find some interesting early book on any of these subjects.  One day there was a listing for a book on State Papers and Publick [sic] Documents of The United States. The listing said it was three of a ten volume set and that it was printed in Boston, 1817.

In the listing there was a mention of a section pertaining to ships.  It had to do with ships detained in the embargo France had imposed on America in 1816.  He had a picture of the title page that showed a signature that was not very clear.   As my interest was about the ships I thought it would be great to bid on it.  As you can see from this photo, the book was a mess.

The pages were loose, the edges cracking and much foxing.  The spine was taped together, but my interest was the subject matter.

It turned out the title page had the signature of Eli P. Ashmun, b. 24 June 1770 (Eli Porter Ashmun) U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, 1816-18. I was thrilled to think this was the book of an earlier American patriot.  I could see he was only in the Senate for two years, and died the next after retiring. He apparently had a medical problem that caused him to resign on May 1818, and within a year, was deceased (d. May 10, 1819.)  How the book got to England  is a mystery for all time. I decided to make a record of  it’s travel back to America and how I obtained it.
My interest other than the listing of ships was the signature that looked like Adams, but was in reality Ashmun.  After I looked at it closely I was able to decipher it as Eli P. Ashmun.  I then turned the title page cover to look at the end board to see if there was a bookplate.   I was amazed. The fellow did not mention in his listing or photos that there was a Library of Congress(LOC) bookplate. It also had above the LOC bookplate a University of Chicago bookplate and had printed that it was discarded from their collection.

How the book  went from Eli Porter Ashmun (1770-1819) to the University of Chicago Library to be used in the  Judson Class, discarded and then cross the ocean and ended up in England, we will never know   The book is dated 1817, but the bookplate dates from 1815.  Most of the information can be found in, The Journal Of Library History, Volume 14/Number 1/Winter 1979.

The following is some historical information on this bookplate.  At about 8 p.m. on the evening of August 24, 1814, British General Robert Ross marched into Washington, D.C., after routing hastily assembled American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, earlier in the day. Encountering neither resistance nor any United States government officials–President Madison and his cabinet had fled to safety–the British quickly torched the White House, the Capitol, which then housed the Library of
Congress the navy yard, and several American warships. However, most private property was left untouched. In 1815 Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library to replace the one lost in the fire.

This is the first bookplate that was going to be used to identify the books as belonging to the Library of Congress.  It was hand pressed in 1815 .

The number one on the bookplate does not mean the first book purchased but had to do with the subject.  Jefferson had devised a classification system solely on subject matter like World History, American History, Politics, Geography, etc.

Records of the printing fortunately survive.  We know that William Elliot a printer who came to Washington, D.C. in 1813, and printed these in 1815, for a production run of 11,000 bookplates, for which he charged $.50 per hundred, or $55.50 in all.  This bookplate is sometimes referred to as a a label because of the small size. It was printed entirely by hand in a letterpress, using type, piece border, and rule.  Fifteen years ago you never knew what you would find on the Internet and sometimes you would get more than you were looking for.  This item ranks as one of my top 25 surprises.

Only example I have found is one that was in the the John H. Jenkins Collection of Austin, Texas.  He was a flamboyant and interesting personality in the Rare Book and Manuscript field who was murdered and found floating in the Colorado River in Texas, having been shot in the back of the head. For his obituary, see The Manuscript Society News, Volume X, No. 3, Summer 1989.  Thanks for looking.

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