Sunday, December 29, 2013

Posies and Pirates

Posies and Pirates                                                                                                                            by Alan Borer

                The book was in a pile of scruffy-looking donations to the library.  Typical book stock at the end of their usefulness, made all the more sad because of the looming de-emphasis on the printed word.  But there were a couple of older items, and I took a closer look.  A math book from the 1890s; a battered McGuffey’s Third Reader (an old edition but the date was unreadable), and the front cover of a book, the rest of which was at the bottom of the pile.  A scan of the title page is below.


                Now denominated OCLC# 191310421 in Worldcat, the central computer database of the world’s book titles, The Bouquet by “A Lady” was a “gift book” of the early Victorian era.  Gift books were books sold for use as gifts.  Often richly decorated with steel engravings and florid prose and verse, they were sources of sentimental reflection for the person to whom they were gifted.  “…most such books made a general appeal to those who wished to bestow an “elegant” offering indicative of “refined” sentiment.”  [The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), Volume XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.,  XX. Magazines, Annuals, and Gift-books, 1783–1850, p. 21]

            Who “A Lady” was is unclear.  The printer was Benjamin B. Mussey, but the verso shows the name of Oliver L. Perkins, the one who “Entered According to an Act of Congress,” and thus secured copyright.  Perkins was a Boston bookseller, and one of the first book merchants to use the term “antiquarian” to describe his stock of merchandise.  Details of Perkins’s life are sketchy.  He was born in Maine in 1808, when Maine was yet a province of Massachusetts.  In the 1850 Census he was listed as a “bookseller” with a wife and four children, plus two live-in servants, both women and one born in Ireland. 
Oliver L. Perkins Bookstore, 1834 []
Other books produced by Oliver Perkins can be tracked via bibliographies on or off line.  He brought out an edition of the 1678 classic The History of the Buccaneers of America  by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin.  This classic book of piracy on the high seas is old enough to have no copyright restrictions on reprints.  English editions are still readily available, and despite the temptation to refer to them as “pirated editions,” they are all perfectly legal.

Another book, The Pearl Box was published by Oliver Perkins about 1851.  Written (compiled?) by “A Pastor,” it claimed to offer one hundred poems suitable for young people.  I have not examined a copy, but from the subject headings, “Love – Juvenile Fiction,” and “Nature – Juvenile Fiction,” we can gat and idea of the contents.  Sentiment, Gothic, and romantic

Thus, the primly Victorian feminine gift book, The Bouquet, keeps company with the bloody, violent, masculine, Buccaneers.  Oliver Perkins, like bookmen before and since, appears to have added to his bookstore by reprinting books that had little or no copyright restrictions.  Did Perkins make much money reprinting books?  Did he intentionally print gender-based potboilers?  That is up to a more skilled bibliographer than I.  But as a literary rag-picker, it was a satisfying look at an old book.


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