March 14, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 13

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    1900: For collecting books, it was a very good year

    s The hunt began in 1975, over lunch. Robert Rosenthal, Curator of Special Collections from 1953 to 1989, and Terry Belanger, then of Columbia University, established a contest among themselves and mutual friend Michael Turner of Oxford University's Bodleian Library. They would compete to collect the most books published in the year 1900, to be exhibited in the year 2000.

    "In the mock-serious spirit of the enterprise," reads the material accompanying the exhibition, "they called themselves the 'Committee of 2000,' and Belanger drafted a constitution, bylaws and an exhibition planning schedule for CO2, as they abbreviated the committee's name."

    It was to be a gala event with two exhibitions: one in London's Earl's Court to be opened by the queen of England and Michael Turner's wife, Elizabeth Turner, and one in New York's Central Park presided over by the president of the United States and Jane Rosenthal, Robert Rosenthal's wife.

    It is four years early, and the Clintons haven't been invited yet, but about 130 of Robert Rosenthal's estimated 600 volumes from 1900 are on display in the exhibition "1900: Books From the Collection of Robert Rosenthal," presented by the Special Collections Department in Regenstein Library. The books in the exhibition are on loan from Jane Rosenthal.

    Robert Rosenthal, who died suddenly in 1989 on the way home from a book-hunting expedition in Scotland, was an avid collector of books both for himself and for the University. To avoid a conflict of interest and to test his creativity, Rosenthal designed his large personal collections around such topics as corn imagery, double-entendres, practical manuals and, yes, the year 1900.

    Why 1900? Rosenthal explained his reasoning in an informal manifesto. It was "as good a date as any other," he wrote, "but was especially attractive because of the two zeros."

    1900 was an important year in publishing. American book publishing was flourishing, with major centers of activity in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. According to material accompanying the exhibition, "Widespread mechanization of nearly every phase of book production made it possible to manufacture books relatively quickly and cheaply in great quantities."

    Even so, a publication date isn't a usual book-collecting category. In fact, said Jane Rosenthal, "The mouths of booksellers dropped open when he walked in and asked to see their books from 1900. They were rattled. They didn't arrange their books that way. It was the source of a lot of fun for him."

    Belanger and Turner soon dropped out of the competition, but Rosenthal persevered, exploring bookstores throughout the United States and Great Britain to add books to his shelves. His only criteria were that they be in good condition and published in 1900.

    The Special Collections exhibition displays the breadth of his results. Included are how-to books, children's books, manuals and the fiction bestsellers of the day. Jane Rosenthal noted that the collection illustrates life at the turn of the century. "I read Mrs. Jerningham's Journal [by Fanny Wheeler Hart]," she said. "It is a very sad book for a modern woman to read, because it is all about how this young bride was trying very hard to please her moody husband during the first few months of their marriage."

    A favorite of Suzy Taraba, Special Collections Public Services Librarian and co-coordinator of "1900" with Jane Rosenthal, is Safe Methods; or, Guide to Success, subtitled Things That Every One Should Know: A Compendium of Legal and Business Forms: A Fund of Practical Information for Every-Day Life: The Essence of Volumes Put Into a Nut Shell.

    "It's printed inexpensively, on cheap paper that wasn't meant to last," Taraba said. "It's the content that is interesting -- part of it is a handbook for gentlemen on arranging their lives so they don't get swindled."

    Jane Rosenthal said that one of her husband's favorites was a book called Indian Club-Swinging: One, Two and Three Club Juggling, by Frank Edward Miller. "He liked the offbeat," she said. "He had a lively sense of humor."

    Robert Rosenthal did not detail a plan to showcase the books. "He planned for the exhibition, but the exhibition didn't have a plan," Taraba said, smiling. To choose books for the exhibit, Taraba first sorted them into categories -- by publisher, topic and so on. For the exhibition, she selected books with an interesting binding, illustrations or an identifiable designer, she said.

    The quest to identify certain designers found in Rosenthal's collection soon became Taraba's personal hunt.

    "Some of them were easy -- the designers had signed the books with their monograms. Others were harder, and I had to consult several articles written on the subject," Taraba said. It was an interesting task, she added, "because not only are they quite beautiful and tremendously varied, but also there were a sizable number of women designers in an era when women were less in the public eye."

    Taraba identified designs by women such as Sarah Whitman, the first American professional artist to regularly design book covers and the pioneer of the use of light book cloth decorated with an art nouveau motif. An example of Whitman's work can be seen on Josephine Dodge Daskam's Smith College Stories.

    One book, James Allen's best-selling The Reign of Law: A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields, is one of two books displayed with its paper dust jacket. "Dust jackets had just started making a regular appearance," Jane Rosenthal said. "At the time, books had beautiful bindings and boring dust jackets. Now the bindings are dull and the dust jackets are colorful. 1900 was right on the edge of the change."

    Taraba also chose books that visitors to the exhibit would recognize. She said, "Lord Jim [by Joseph Conrad] is actually better known today than it was in 1900."

    According to Jane Rosenthal, Lord Jim is probably the most valuable book in the collection. "Robert was surprised when he saw it in a dealers' catalog," she said. "He had acquired it because it was a 1900 book, not because it was a first edition."

    Robert Rosenthal was careful to collect affordable books, typically spending between $1 and $5 each. "He rarely bought a book that was near $100," Jane Rosenthal said, "and I don't think there is one in the 1900 collection."

    Taraba said that the moderate cost of Rosenthal's collection is particularly exciting. "It makes a person like me think, 'Hey, I can collect, too!' "

    "1900: Books From the Collection of Robert Rosenthal" will be on view through Friday, May 10, in the Special Collections Department in Regenstein Library. Gallery hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. A checklist accompanies the exhibition.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco