Before book superstores-cum-coffee bars and before Web shopping and Oprah's book club, popular books were peddled door-to-door across the country in the form of hardcover sample books - sort of coming attractions for books, designed to hook customers into signing on for purchases.
Penn's library recently acquired a collection of more than 2,000 such books from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection, reportedly the largest of its kind, was purchased from Robert Seymour and Michael Zinman.
"It was almost too good to be true," said Michael Ryan, director of Penn's Special Collections Library, referring to how the collection came into Penn's hands. "All the stars lined up. There's no doubt this is where this collection belongs."
Alumnus and collector Bill Helfand (CE'48) suggested to Ryan that Penn go after the collection, which had been recently catalogued by another alum, Keith Arbour (C'80). Ryan would not disclose the cost of the collection, but said, "It was not hard to agree on terms."
Philadelphia and Chicago served as major hubs in the publishing of the sample books. But don't look for any major publishers or literary significance within the pages of the books.
"We're not talking about great works of literature and we're not talking about first editions," said Ryan, leafing through a worn encyclopedic-looking copy of "Mile-Stones of History, Literature, Travel, Mythology, Sculpture and Art." "Some of them are delightfully sappy."
The books include several sample chapters and many illustrations from the book being proffered by the traveling salespeople, and many contain sample binding styles, price and edition information, as well as instructions from the publisher on sales pitches and strategies.
Beyond the standard texts, some of the volumes are actually memoirs of the men and women hawking the samples, Ryan said. "It's another whole dimension to the collection," he said. The accounts cover a range of anecdotal information, as well as stories about the sales force's relationship with the publishers at the time. For example, most publishers made their sales representatives buy the books and stuck them with the bill if a customer backed out of an order.
"What they tell you about books is how they were marketed and how they were intended to be hyped," Ryan said. "Each one of these is a case study of the dissemination of literature in this country before urbanization."
The collection is being inventoried and should be available for viewing by the fall, Ryan said. Select books and illustrations likely will also be available to view on the World Wide Web, he added.
"The humble little volumes in this collection open onto a wealth of social and cultural documentation otherwise unavailable," Ryan said. "It would be hard to exaggerate the collection's importance, given the enormous agglomeration of views, perspectives, attitudes and preconceptions it represents.
"To paraphrase a recent review of the printed catalogue of the collection, anyone contemplating a project involving the American book in the 19th century will want to consult the Zinman collection," Ryan said.
Originally published on March 19, 1998