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Miss Doggett's Masterpiece

May 14, 2009 2:43 PM | 0 comments

If this post is about anything at all, it is about the places you can end up when you don't quite know where you are going.

DoggettThere is a book in our collection that no one ever asks for, even though it is an excellent example of its kind and a work of solid scholarship. The book I have in mind is Marguerite V. Doggett's, Long Island Printing 1791-1830. This bibliography of all the earliest printed works produced on Long Island inspired me some years ago to search the decks of the Library for neglected examples of early Brooklyn printing. [Some people are unaware of the fact that, beneath the three upper floors of the Central Library lie four levels of "decks" holding a reference collection that hides jewels among the long rows of library buckram.  It was there that, some years ago, a former Brooklyn Collection archivist found a copy of Thomas Wharton's History of English Poetry that had been annotated by Herman Melville.  This book went to Harvard University where I am sure it is being very well cared for.] My finds were not exactly jewels, but the search did have something of the feeling of a treasure hunt, and our Early Brooklyn Printing Collection now comprises 24 volumes.  That little hunt was nothing compared to that of Miss Doggett, who visited over 60 libraries and corresponded with scores of librarians in her search.

Born in Massachusetts in 1887, Marguerite Verity Doggett spent some years as librarian of Clemson University in the 1920s; in 1947 she took the position of Chief Librarian of the Long Island Division of Queensborough Public Library, where she served until 1956.  She died in Greenville S.C. in 1985 at the age of 97. 

Early Brooklyn Printing

Published in 1979 by the Long Island Historical Society, her bibliography owes a debt to the Collections of New York Public Library and the Long Island Division as well as upwards of sixty other collections, but not, alas, our own. No matter, our role will be to celebrate Ms Doggett's achievement.  She identifies 385 items printed during the period, of which 259 or 67% emanated from Kings County. 

The well-known Alden Spooner was probably the most prolific of Brooklyn's printers, but Thomas Kirk was the first, and others include John Pray and Josiah Bowen, Erastus Worthington, and George L. Birch.

As I surveyed the little row of books I had collected, (and in particular, those produced by Thomas Kirk), I asked myself, what was it about these titles that made them, in the mind of the first printer in Brooklyn, more worthy of reproduction than any others?   A few picked at random include: An act to incorporate the society of the lying-in hospital; Articles of agreement between the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; A brief concordance to the Holy Scriptures;  An elegy on the death of the late Rev. John Wesley; The Discarded Son, or Haunt of the Banditti; The Schoolmaster's Assistant.

As Miss Doggett notes, there is "a spirit of humanitarianism" in Kirk's activities. I would go further and say that, besides the "job printing" titles produced for other publishers (like the Historical and Geographical Account of Algiers and the Young Misses magazine), Kirk's choices were largely governed by his adherence to Methodism. Religion and self-improvement were the staples of his trade.

The most terrifying of his publications by far is Dillworth's Schoolmaster's Assistant.

Q: What is the amount of 63l sterling, in Pieces of Eight, at 56d per piece? Answ. 270 Pieces of Eight.

Q: What is Alligation Alternate? A: Alligation Alternate is, when the rates of several things are given to find such quantities of them as are necessary to make a mixture, which may bear a certain rate propounded.

Q: What is the neat weight of 38 hogsheads of Tobacco, weighing gross 201C sqrs 12ib tare in the whole 3140lb?

A: 173C 3qrs 7lb.

Q: How is the neat weight found, when trett is allowed with tare?

A:Divide the pounds suttle by 26, the quotient is the trett, which subtract from the suttle, the remainder is neat.

Who knew that early 19th century Brooklyn was peopled by math geniuses?

An enquiry concerning....

The early Methodists in the North East were firmly anti-slavery, condemning slave ownership as sinful. So Kirk's publication in 1810, of Baptiste Henri Gregoire's Enquiry concerning the intellectual and moral faculties, and literature of negroes... is entirely of a piece with his religious convictions.  This trenchant condemnation of slavery is followed by brief biographical sketches of outstanding individuals such as Phyllis Wheatley, Benjamin Benneker, and others less well known--Amo, L'Islet Geoffroy, and Thomas Fuller.  Fuller, a mathematical prodigy, would have had no trouble with Dillworth's problems. 

Leaving Kirk aside for a second, we have Erastus Worthington to thank for the  Catalogue of Books in the Brooklyn Circulating library kept at the office of the Long Island Star, Fulton-Street (1821) which, being a bibliography within a bibliography, just about makes my day.  Brooklynites in 1821 could borrow all manner of fiction, as well as books on history, biography and travel, and "miscellaneous" works. These include works on the Art of Thinking and the Art of Swimming, the Flight to the Moon, a Lecture on Heads, and an Essay on Irish Bulls. Not a single one of Thomas Kirks' publications is listed, which suggests to me that Brooklyn was heading in an altogether more secular direction than Kirk would have liked.