Getting Here is Half the Fun

Detail of the stamp.

Detail of the Bouches de l’Elbe stamp.

Books carry traces of where they’ve been. Some of the very old books in our collection speak in the first person, with the conventional Latin inscription “Ego sum ex libris...” (“I belong to...”). Our Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library holds the first American edition of Chaptal’s Elements of Chemistry (1796) garishly inscribed “Alexander Hamilton | his Book | anno Domini | 1804” right across the title page. Alas, this was evidently not the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury—who was shot and killed by Aaron Burr that same year—but his son Alexander Hamilton, Jr., who was a senior at Columbia and thus had more use for a chemistry textbook (and apparently a corresponding concern to mark his property!). Newer books in the rare book collection have printed labels or bookplates of libraries and collectors known and forgotten.

The rare books collection’s newest addition, Benedikt Hermann’s Über die allgemeinen Eigenschaften des Kupfers [On the General Properties of Copper] has a rich history. The book is rare: even in this 1812 second printing of the Leipzig second edition, our copy is still apparently the earliest held in an American library.

The title page bears the signature of Horace Vaughan Winchell (1865-1923). Winchell worked for the Minnesota State Geological Survey, wrote The Iron Ores of Minnesota (1891), and worked for the Minnesota Mining Company until the panic of 1893. In 1898, he became geologist for the infamous Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which undoubtedly accounts for his ownership of this book. In 1906, he became geologist for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and starting in 1908 began practice as a consultant. In 1919 he became president of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, though he was succeeded the following year by Herbert C. Hoover, later president of the United States.

A collection of his books was presented by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to American Institute of Mining Engineers, and these subsequently became part of the Engineering Societies Library in New York (est. 1907) after Winchell’s death, at which time our book received a large and splendid Engineering Societies Library bookplate “In Memory of Horace Vaughan Winchell”.

The Engineering Societies Library was transferred to the rich history of science collection at Linda Hall Library in Kansas City in 1995. But by that time, this book was on the move again, for it also contains—turned sideways and squeezed in along the top—the book plate of noted gemologist John Sinkankas (1915-2002).

But the most mysterious evidence of prior ownership in this book is a small, barely noticeable embossed stamp on the title page. Backlit and under magnification one can just make out “...E ...RANÇAIS (BOUCHES DE L’ELBE...”. By no means would it be unusual to find a French book stamp on a German book, but its presence makes all the more sense when one realizes that the missing text is “Empire français (Bouches de l’Elbe).” The Bouches de l’Elbe was a département of the First French Empire, made up out of Northern German territories at the mouth of the Elbe, with its capital in Hamburg. This imperial library must have been this book’s first owner when it was published in 1812. The Bouches de l’Elbe was only established in 1811 and vanished after 1814.

CHF’s bookkeeper teases me from time to time that the rare books collection is really just a used books collection. This is true, of course; all the books that come into the collection were used by someone, and often a series of someones. But sometimes, getting here is half the fun.

James Voelkel is Curator of Rare Books at CHF's Othmer Library of Chemical History.

Posted In: History

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