Behind the Headlines: Austin Abbey Rare Books’ Role in the Discovery of an Important Suffrage Archive

On March 29th, the New York Times announced in their online edition, the discovery of an important suffrage archive that includes letters and ephemera collected over the course of many years by Isabella Beecher Hooker, a little known and heretofore unsung hero of the early suffrage movement. The archive contains letters from Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and many other suffrage luminaries in addition to rare manuscripts, signed suffrage petitions, pamphlets, newspapers, leaflets, circulars, flyers and broadsides.  Bob Seymour of The Colebrook Book Barn and myself  (Adrienne Horowitz Kitts of Austin Abbey Rare Books) sold the archive to The University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation on behalf of our clients, George and Libbie Merrow.  The University of Rochester’s article regarding the archive includes more detail.

Here is an image of me just after I had finished assembling the Isabella Beecher Hooker Archive in acid-free boxes, and was preparing for the trip with Bob to Rochester, NY to  present the archive to the University of Rochester last December:

AARB and IBH Archive

The New York  Times article and the subsequent  University of Rochester announcement was the culmination of over a year’s worth of work we put into the archive —  and it all started with a simple wooden crate.

After a call at the home of our clients, George and Libbie Merrow, Bob and I came away with books we had purchased and a slatted wooden crate crammed with a packed jumble of dirty paper our clients asked us to evaluate.

Since George Merrow’s family had founded the Merrow Sewing Machine Company, we initially thought that the box might contain company letters and records. I took the box home with me, and on a bright October morning, I found instead that the box contained American history.  As the papers in the box were all covered in thick dust and mouse droppings, I began by carefully dusting each and every piece of paper (a massive job since the box contained many hundreds of thickly stacked letters, newspapers, leaflets, etc.), and taking note of what each paper or letter contained.

About an hour and a half into my work, I picked up a letter with strong, bold handwriting, turned it over, and saw the signature: “Susan B. Anthony”.  I can’t really explain the thrill of being able to hold a letter that had been held more than a hundred years before by the great suffrage leader. This was a woman whose work ultimately allowed  me to follow two career paths that until not too long ago were pursued almost entirely by men — that of a research scientist and that of rare book dealer.

After sitting down and reading the letter thoroughly, I went back to dusting more letters and papers.  After a few more minutes I saw that strong handwriting again — and thought to myself, “No way, really?” I unfolded the letter, and again, Miss Anthony’s bold signature was affixed to the end of it.  Then I stopped dusting and just started looking for that now familiar hand, and quickly found four more letters!  Once my initial excitement of the find had calmed somewhat, I called Bob, my friend and collaborator, and then Paul, my husband.

After spending a year organizing, researching and documenting all the material, I had a 47 page catalog to show for my efforts.  All of my research lead to the conclusion that we had discovered an important suffrage archive that identified Isabella Beecher Hooker as a major force in the suffrage movement and a central point of communication between its many strong personalities. In addition, the archive shows in great detail  the techniques used by the early suffragists to forward their cause.  Many of these techniques would be passed down to another generation of suffragists who would later take the banner and ultimately win suffrage.

Once the research and cataloging was complete, Bob and I met with the Merrows and explained to them that we felt the archive should be kept as a whole since the value of the archive in its entirety both to themselves and to the history of the women’s movement was much greater than the sum of its parts.  The Merrows enthusiastically agreed, and we soon identified the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation as a good home for the archive because of their rich suffrage resources, their existing Isabella Beecher Hooker archive, and their commitment to providing public access to their resources and promoting suffrage research.

Austin Abbey Rare Books Featured on the WABF Blog

Beth Campbell, Chief Curator of the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair (WABF), asked me to write a blog about how I made the transition from collector to bookseller.  The blog is called “Making the Leap into Bookselling“. Writing this blog reminded me once again about how fortunate I am to be in this business – the wonderful camaraderie among booksellers, the excitement of the hunt, and the pleasure of researching new finds.

The book cover featured on my WABF blog post is the extremely scarce famed cover design of Helena de Kay Gilder for The New Day: A Poem in Songs and Sonnets by Richard Watson Gilder. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company, 1876.  Find other books from the Austin  Abbey Rare Books Aesthetic Movement collection on our website.