Sunday, 13 June 2010

Eliza Haywood at Primston(?)

I have written before about the popularity and social reach of Eliza Haywood's work, and about the use of provenance research in uncovering details concerning her readers and the availability of her works. Of course, this all depends on our ability to read an inscription and to make sense of it. To identify people and places, which is not always easy.

Here is a case in point: a four volume set of Ab.16.17 La Belle Assemblée, 5th ed. (1743) in a late eighteenth-century half-vellum binding. The covers are worn, particularly the paper-covered parts of the boards, the title-lables have been lost, but the lovely gilt decoration to the spine is still visible, as you can see.

Internally, each volume is foxed and worn. The original engraved frontispieces have been trimmed to the edge of the plate and then mounted on clean pages and bound in, suggesting that the set was not exactly pretty when bound in the late eighteenth-century.

But, when this binding was executed, each volume was given an inscription: the same inscription in each volume. These inscriptions are clearest in volumes 2 and 3.

My reading of this inscription is

Steward's Room

I am not really sure about the "m" in Primston, and I can't find any example of Primston as a place name (though, it could also be the name of a house or estate). There are three ascenders between the "i" and the "s" but the third looks a little different from the first two, so it could be "nc": that is "Princston."

In fact, I pretty-well convinced myself it was Princeton after I discovered that Princeton's University Steward in the late eighteenth century was quite a likely candidate for keeping a small collection of books for students. As you can see here

The ostensible task of the Steward was to maintain the college dining hall but other duties included collecting bills, tuition, fees, and room and pew rents. The Steward also sold textbooks, cleaned chimneys, guarded the belfry and bell-rope, hired and fired servants and purchased college furniture. Originally, the Steward's quarters were in the basement of Nassau Hall, along with the kitchen and dining rooms, known collectively as the refectory.

When I raised this possibility with Stephen Ferguson, Curator of Rare Books at Princeton University Library, he was skeptical. As he pointed out in an email

The town was always understood to be one of a series [of towns] partly along the King’s Highway, with King’s Town to the north (Kingston) of “Prince’s town” and “Queen’s Town” a bit to the west of “Prince’s Town.”

Also, local self-nomenclature at the time often referred to the college as “Nassau Hall” or “Princeton College.” It was not usual practice to refer to use the town’s name as co-extensive with the college. That usual came in the mid to later part of the 19th century, I think.

If "Primston" isn't Princeton, the only remaining avenue of research is via the vendor. The vendor certainly was helpful and so I now know that the set was purchased at the auction house D.M. Nesbits in Southsea, Portsmouth. Whether the trail ends there remains to be seen …

[UPDATE: 2 July 2016: After all my pictures disappeared (again) I decided to give up on external hosts for large versions (1000px) of my image files and, for now on, will stick with the smaller images (500px), which Blogger is prepared to host.]

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