Henry E. Huntington, the Greatest Book Collector

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In “Why America buys England’s books,” a 1927 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Philadelphia bookseller Rosenbach wrote that Henry E. Huntington was the “greatest collector of books the world has ever known.” The London Times called him “The Quaritch of America.” Three published biographies and 200 acres in a posh Los Angeles suburb tell us a lot about Huntington. President of the Pacific Electric Railway, Henry developed Southern California rail lines as well as water and power companies. The “king of trolleys” inherited, but also made, a large fortune. When he purchased in New York a two-volume vellum set of the Gutenberg Bible, he paid $50,000, twice the highest amount ever paid for a book at auction. From the Duke of Westminster, Huntington in 1922 acquired, for $728,000, one of the best-known British portraits, Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.

Henry Huntington began collecting in the 1870s, his competitor Henry Folger in the 1880s. At first, they assembled their libraries through personal visits to local bookshops, but soon learned to court owners of private collections and to have booksellers serve as their commission agents at auctions. Obsessive collectors, both took out loans to finance their purchases, and at times considered themselves close to falling into debt. Huntington bought as many as 200 entire libraries en bloc; Folger many fewer. They both preferred to purchase collections privately before they went on public sale.

The widest gap between the Huntingtons and the Folgers was in their style of living. Like banker J. P. Morgan and entrepreneur Jay Gould, railroad man Henry E. Huntington traveled the country in a private railway car. He and his wife Arabella spent summers in New York or abroad at Chateau Beauregard, a 400-acre estate he leased near Versailles. When they dined with company–or even alone–Mr. Huntington wore a cutaway suit and Mrs. Huntington a long, formal black dress; they were served by butlers and liveried footmen.

Huntington pursued bargains and avoided “fancy prices,” but he was especially keen on obtaining perfect copies. When Huntington reached his goal of obtaining a flawless book, he sold his imperfect copy. Folger welcomed imperfect copies, as they stretched his dollars. Ahead of his time in anticipating the importance of variorum editions, Folger believed scholars would recognize the usefulness of textual variants. He preferred copies with marginalia––corrections, notes, and comments; they enhanced a book’s usefulness by adding historical context. Both gentlemen were reserved and modest, avoiding publicity. Huntington granted only one interview in his life; Folger, the same. When Rosenbach wrote both collectors seeking their photos for a book he was writing, he got nothing. When asked whether he would consent to a biography, Huntington replied, “This library will tell the story”. They refrained from creating personal bookplates. They turned down many appeals for financial contributions to concentrate on building their collections

As their own libraries grew to hundreds of thousands of items, each man developed plans for a permanent repository. In parallel, they planned, designed, built, and endowed libraries whose designs were honored by the American Institute of Architects. The collectors each arranged a board of trustees to administer their institutions. They distrusted the idea of “politicians” playing a role in library management, yet with a sure public spirit transformed their private capital into a public good; both libraries would be open to scholars and visitors. Huntington and Folger were capitalists with a similar philanthropic bent, to create research centers for academic study, cultural appreciation, and the advancement of learning that would announce America’s arrival in the Gilded Age as a leading world culture.

 

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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