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The Way of the Marketplace: Philadelphia

THE BREADTH and liberality of the bookish culture of colonial Philadelphia gave it an alien flavor from the viewpoint of a New Engender or a Virginian. Its peculiarly Quaker tone also set it apart and, for most of the colonial period, further disqualified Philadelphia from being the capital of American culture. The account of the importing, buying, reading, and writing of books in the Friendly metropolis leads us into neither the drawing-rooms of patrons, the attics of Bohemia, nor the convivial meeting-places of literary circles. It takes us rather into the dispersed daily activities of physicians, businessmen, shopkeepers, and mechanics.

The difference between Samuel Johnson’s circle in London and Benjamin Franklin’s circle in Philadelphia is a measure of the difference between the place of books in the older and the newer culture. Dr. Johnson’s famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which he expressed contempt for the arrogance of his patron, could never have been written in Philadelphia. Imagine Franklin seeking a patron, cooling his heels in the waiting room of a noble lord, and wasting his time writing letters to rebuke the discourtesies of a man who sought sycophants! Contrast Dr. Johnson’s circle, frequented by James Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, and Edward Gibbon—all men of letters in the traditional sense of the word—with Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto,” its young, unknown membership including a glazier, a surveyor, a joiner, a cobbler, and several printers.

Curiously enough, the very doctrines of Philadelphia Quakerism—the inwardness, the distrust of dogma, the emphasis on the individual—which made Quakers uncompromising and ill-suited for governing a large community, also made them practical in their approach to knowledge. The ways of mysticism are unpredictable: for the very same reasons the Quakers refused to fight attacking Indians, they wished to fight pedantry. William Penn advised his children:

Have but few Books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of Religious or Civil Subjects … reading many Books is but a taking off the Mind too much from Meditation. Reading your selves and Nature, in the Dealings and Conduct of Men, is the truest human wisdom. The Spirit of a Man knows the Things of Man, and more true Knowledge comes by Meditation and just Reflection than by Reading; for much Reading is an Oppression of the Mind, and extinguishes the natural Candle; which is the Reason of so many senseless Scholars in the World.

Within the ample frame of English puritanism, New England Puritans required that men attend to their books, but Pennsylvania Quakers with equal earnestness urged that men attend to experience. New England dogma might confine reading tastes to the practical purpose of building Zion, but Pennsylvania Quakers looked less into sacred texts than into their hearts and at the sins of their community. If their religion did not prod them to learning, it did not at least keep them from any kind of learning.

Unlike the Puritans, the Quakers were never adept at compromise. As the 18th century wore on they developed the only slightly inferior virtue of inconsistency, which never shone more clearly than in their attitude toward books. Despite his warnings, William Penn owned a considerable library and other leading Quakers possessed collections which served “for delight and profit.” One of the three largest colonial libraries of the early 18th century (along with Cotton Mather’s and William Byrd’s) was owned by James Logan, the Quaker who was Penn’s secretary, who later became leader of the conservative party, and who before he died had held almost every important office in the colony. Logan expected that the Hamburg merchant from whom he ordered works in Greek and Latin would be surprised “to find an American Bearskin Merchant troubling himself with such books.” Yet he doted on his books and expected them to be the entertainment of his advancing years.

The intellectual life of Philadelphia offered a great deal of room in which active minds could range. Its citizens were less policed by orthodoxy than were those of New England, less confined by narrowly practical and political concerns than were those of Virginia, and less dominated by the tastes of a literary aristocracy than were those of London. These features disqualified Philadelphia from becoming the literary capital of all America, but they enriched an already heterogeneous colonial culture.

By the middle of the 18th century Philadelphia showed a wide variety of religious creeds and patterns of worship. An informal inventory of the buildings of the city made by the Rev. Andrew Burnaby in 1759-60 included “a good assembly-room belonging to the society of freemasons; and eight or ten places of religious worship; viz. two churches, three quaker meeting-houses, two presbyterian ditto, one Lutheran church, one Dutch Calvinist ditto, one Sweedish ditto, one Romish chapel, one anabaptist meeting-house, one Moravian ditto: there is also an academy or college, originally built for a tabernacle for Mr. Whitefield.” This tolerant atmosphere in religion encouraged the interchange of books and ideas on many other subjects as well.

Philadelphia became a center of the book-trade, and its importance increased with each passing decade of the 18th century. In 1742 there were only five bookshops in the city; by 1760 fifty booksellers had opened shop; by 1776 the city had seventy-seven bookshops. While, at the end of the 17th century, Boston’s book-trade had been second only to that of London in the English-speaking world, in the second half of the 18th century, the leadership had moved to Philadelphia.

Although the Philadelphia book-trade did not dominate colonial America, it grew and flourished. Its imports became more assorted. Some shops even found it profitable to specialize: James Chattin mainly in Quaker tracts; Sparhawk & Anderton in “a very great choice of books adapted for the instruction and amusement of all the little masters and misstresses in America”; William Woodhouse in rare books; Charles Startin in classics and fine editions; Henry Miller in German books. By the 1770’s a fifth of the city’s booksellers carried books in the German language. The free and competitive atmosphere also invited books from France; in the latter part of the century there probably were more French books in the Philadelphia shops than could be found anywhere else in the thirteen colonies.

Competition among booksellers helped disseminate books and ideas. These were among the first American businesses to advertise extensively in newspapers and to use modern dramatic methods of merchandising. During the latter half of the 18th century, the newspapers were commonly filled with booksellers’ ads (sometimes full pages). These reached into outlying towns, and, together with occasional broadsides and catalogues especially directed to the country trade, were the propaganda by which booksellers sold literacy to their fellow colonists.

The most enterprising of the early American merchandisers was Robert Bell, a Scot whose “doubtful” religion and morality—he fathered an illegitimate child and openly kept a mistress—seemed only to make him a more effective salesman. A pioneer in “national” advertising, he inserted ads in nearly all the colonial newspapers to announce the first American editions of Blackstone’s Commentaries and other such works. He traveled over the continent to buy up choice collections to be brought to Philadelphia, where they were then sold or dispersed to other parts of the colonies. His most famous purchase was the library of William Byrd of Virginia, which he transported to Philadelphia in “perhaps as many as 40 waggon loads.” To the rhythm of his auctioneer’s hammer, he entertained Philadelphia audiences with his lively wit; he developed the book-auction into a major American institution. The book-auction had long been used on the continent of Europe, but it did not reach England until the end of the 17th century, nor Boston, despite its flourishing book-trade, until 1713. It was in flourishing, free-wheeling Philadelphia, with its motley audiences, that the vulgar commercial merchandising of reading-matter was most successful.

In 1744 Benjamin Franklin was advertising his own auction of choice books with the minimum price marked in each volume. His sessions were held daily at specified hours over a period of three weeks. The auction was by no means confined to second-hand books; publishers used this way of unloading their remainders directly on the reading public. Bell, advertising an auction in 1770, catalogued the retail price of his new books and announced that each would be offered for half-price. By such sales, a colonial printer explained, he could turn “dead stock into live cash, and may again attempt the work of some celebrated author whose writings will diffuse knowledge throughout America.”

None could rival Bell, whose wit and antics were a staple Philadelphia entertainment. “Many, going to his auction for the merriment,” a newspaper reported, “would buy a book from good humour. It was as good as a play to attend his sales…. There were few authors of whom he could not tell some anecdote, which would get the audience in a roar. He sometimes had a can of beer beside him, and would drink comical healths. His buffoonery was diversified and without limit.” In mid-18th century, in this once-Quaker metropolis, books had become a mere commodity, a very profitable one. It would be hard to imagine a Boston clergyman or a Virginia planter taking part in such antics; for them books had both a narrower and a more vital purpose. But in pitching his sales-talk to the town “mechanick” and the passing customer, Bell showed himself a shrewd judge of the growing Philadelphia market, which was anything but highfalutin’.

The audience for imported books was widened and developed by another institution which had its first American success in Philadelphia, the so-called “social library,” an early example of the American identification of learning with self-improvement. While not an American invention—such libraries were not uncommon in England in the 1720’s—it held a special place in the life of this American city.

The “social library” was simply a club in which members paid an entrance fee plus annual dues for the privilege of using the group’s collection of books. The earliest such institution known in the American colonies grew out of the “Junto” formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1727. This club of young artisans and tradesmen, established for “mutual improvement,” was modeled after the earnest Cotton Mather’s scheme for neighborhood benefit societies, to twenty of which he himself belonged. Its declared purpose was similar to that of later American “Service” clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis.

Franklin’s group did not chat wittily about polite literature; it had topics for “debate.” “Is it justifiable to put private men to death, for the sake of public safety or tranquillity, who have committed no crime? As, in the case of the plague, to stop infection; or as in the case of the Welshmen here executed?” “If the sovereign power attempts to deprive a subject of his right (or, which is the same thing, of what he thinks his right) is it justifiable to him to resist, if he is able?” “Whence comes the dew that stands on the outside of a tankard that has cold water in it in the summer time?”

When members of the Junto found themselves handicapped in debate by their lack of books, they did not ask a gift from a wealthy patron; instead they pooled their small individual means. At first they simply collected the books owned by members onto shelves at one end of the clubroom, but this was not enough. In 1731 Franklin proposed his plan for the Library Company of Philadelphia “and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterwards obtain’d a charter, the company being increased to one hundred.” The Library Company of Philadelphia, during its long life—far longer than even the half-century Franklin had optimistically foreseen—encouraged that “purposeful reading” which was a common characteristic of American colonists north and south.

Like the members of later “Book Clubs,” the members of Franklin’s company did not rely on their own judgment, “and the Committee esteeming Mr. Logan to be a Gentleman of universal Learning, and the best Judge of Books in these Parts, ordered that Mr. Godfrey should wait on him and request him to favour them with a Catalogue of suitable Books.” Logan’s selections, costing forty-five pounds sterling, were ordered from London on March 31, 1732. There were forty-odd titles. The list included no work of theology—but dictionaries, grammars, an atlas, several multi-volume works of history, travel and biography, and a few books on politics and morals. About a third of the titles were on emphatically practical subjects: anatomy, biology, chemistry, geometry, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture—and Daniel Defoe’s Compleat English Tradesman. Only a handful of ancient classics (and these the most obvious—the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Dryden’s translation of Virgil) and the merest smattering of belles-lettres (The Spectator, The Guardian, The Tatler, and the works of Addison) showed any deference to the reading tastes of London literati. Although the library’s scope widened, its character and appeal did not change much during the next half-century. “The librarian assured me,” Jacob Duché reported in 1772, “that for one person of distinction and fortune, there were twenty tradesmen that frequented this library.” Two years later, of its 8000 titles, barely 80 came under the classification “Fiction, Wit, and Humour.”

This subscription library, and many others like it, flourished in Philadelphia and in the towns of New England, where fifty were founded in the next half-century. Within Philadelphia the Library Company tended to absorb other libraries; by the Revolution it had become a major institution in the cultural life of the city. To it was added the rich library of James Logan, given to the public at his death in 1751. Later Franklin boasted that his Library Company had been “the mother of all the North American subscription libraries now so numerous”; actually it had been only one expression of the diffused literacy of colonial America. He was not exaggerating, however, when he remarked that “these libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.”

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The variety of attitudes towards books described in these chapters was in fact even greater than appears here. In New York for most of the 18th century there was no impressive interest in books; before the Revolution it did not have as many bookstores as either Boston or Philadelphia, although its book-trade was comparable to that of such English provincial cities as Newcastle, Liverpool, or Bath. Practical commercial interests prevailed, and the confusing remnants of Dutch culture, together with competition among literary languages, stunted the book business. Charleston, South Carolina, which was the only large town south of Philadelphia before the rise of Baltimore in mid-18th century, showed an aristocratic character unique on the continent. Its upper class, newly-rich in rice, indigo, and slaves, enjoyed their exclusive private clubs and mimicked the ways of the London rich more successfully than did Americans anywhere else. With its busy round of concerts, dances, hunts, horse-races, cock-fights, and card-games, the city became famous also for its beautiful and well-dressed women. But the free-spending aristocracy did not spend much of its money on books; the first major bookshop in Charleston did not open until 1754, when Robert Wells offered an assortment of books “chiefly entertaining.” This busy, gay, unbookish community had very much its own flavor, but certainly not one to qualify it as a cultural capital of the colonies.

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