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Holy Bible

Page Holy Bible


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"Bound in Boston by Henry B. Legg"
Hannah D. French [*]

With the restoration of the town Bible of Salisbury, Connecticut, and its subsequent exhibition, a unique early American binding came to light. It was printed in Philadelphia, 1796-98, bound in Boston, and presented to his native town by one of the subscribers; and the Selectmen of Salisbury on May 19, 1800, gratefully acknowledged it with a note of thanks to Mr. Caleb Bingham of Boston "for his valuable Present of an Elegant Folio Bible" which they received as "a token of his attachment to, and affection for his native Town."[1]

The Bible is of interest for a variety of reasons. Its local association is important to the citizens of Salisbury, for it was presented by that most estimable native son, Caleb Bingham, educator, writing master, and at the time of presentation, a prominent bookseller in Boston. The donor's inscription is irresistible to students of American handwriting, its flourishes further adorned with a calligraphic eagle. Much can be said for the Bible itself, which came from the "Hot-Press" of John Thompson of Philadelphia. Indeed the justifiably proud printer and publisher advertised it with patriotic fanfare in the Philadelphia newspapers during the years it was appearing in forty numbers published bi-weekly. John Thompson and Abraham Small announced it as, "the most beautiful production of its nature hitherto seen."[2] Their advertisement went on to describe the paper as the best, the types as beautiful, the apparatus for hot-pressing as procured from different parts of


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the Union, all of it American, and the value as "the cheapest hot-pressed Bible ever printed in any country."

This Bible was naturally esteemed in its own city, but it was honored, also, outside its place of origin. The list of subscribers includes sixty-five from Boston, among them such important booksellers as Ebenezer Larkin, Isaiah Thomas, and David West, in addition to Caleb Bingham. The New York list was much longer and of course Philadelphia's was longest of all. Two Philadelphia bookbinders, whose names were not in the list of subscribers, are known to have bound copies now in existence, Robert Aitken and John Cameron. Aitken, printer, engraver, and bookbinder of renown, bound several copies, three in "extra Gilt leaves, broad border Morocco," two volumes £9; and one, two volumes "Gilt," £4.10.[3] One of the copies in morocco was recently exhibited in Philadelphia.[4] Though the Aitken copy is not signed, the Bible formerly belonging to Isaac Gouveneur, subscriber from New York, bears the label of John Cameron, "South-west corner of Dock and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia."[5] Less elaborate than Aitken's binding in morocco and much more decorative than the simple calfskin binding with gilt spine by Cameron, the Bible bound by Henry B. Legge is in one thick folio instead of the two volumes of the other two binders, and is signed in gold italic capitals at the foot of the spine, "Bound in Boston by Henry B. Legg." Thick as it was, the volume would not accommodate the final e of the binder's last name. This handsomely decorated and solidly constructed binding is signed and placed; it is perhaps the only surviving signed work of a binder hitherto known just by name.

The name Henry B. Legge appears in the Boston directories for 1798 through 1803 and in various newspaper advertisements.[6] This binder worked in partnership with one Mirick in June of 1799, but the partnership dissolved in September of that year. His advertisement of June 15 read:

Henry Bilson Legge is desirous of informing Gentlemen, Merchants and Traders, in general, and his own countrymen in particular, that he has


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been regularly bred to the Manufactories above mentioned, in England — that he has had much experience in London, and different parts of America, and has no doubt of giving that complete satisfaction in Boston, which has attended his endeavours in those places.[7]
He described his work with the usual phrases, "BOOK-BINDING, Extra and elegant or strong and plain." He made much of the strength of his bindings, promising double leather joints when wanted, and directed prospective customers to Mr. E. Larkin's shop at No. 47 Cornhill to see a sample of one of the many sets of "the Encyclopaedia" which he and Mirick had bound. This advertisement appears to have brought him customers, for he moved his shop in December, 1799, to the first store in Quaker Lane and in his removal notice returned "grateful thanks to his friends and customers for their many and increasing favors."[8] At the same time he advertised for "Two well-behaved ingenious LADS," for his business. The Boston directory for 1800 listed his business at Congress Street and his house at Cornhill, the same street as Caleb Bingham's bookshop. In his last appearance in the directory, that of 1803, his address is 10 State Street and his house at Pond Street. In 1804 his death notice appeared in at least two Boston newspapers. The fuller notice read:
Yesterday, Mr. Henry B. Legge, bookbinder, Aet. 41. He was an honest man. His funeral will be Tomorrow afternoon, from his dwelling-house, No. 84, Newbury-street, where his relations and friends are respectfully invited to attend. The Brethren of his Fraternity, of which he was a member, are also respectfully invited.[9]
The other notice dismissed him with one sentence, "He was an honest man."[10] Five days later, on November 15, James F. Fletcher, "Bookbinder and working Stationer", informed the public that he had taken over the shop of the late Mr. Henry B. Legge "at No. 10 State-street, and corner of Congress-street" and would carry on the business, with an added "N.B. Two Gentlemen can be accommodated with Boarding. Inquire of Mrs. Legge, No. 84, Newbury-street."[11] Mr. Fletcher's notice suggests that the Congress Street and State Street addresses of the directories for 1800 and 1803 were the same and Legge must have worked at that corner for four of the six years he is known to have been in Boston.


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There are certain mysteries about Henry B. Legge and his career. Though he gives us his word that he has worked in London and different parts of America, neither Ellic Howe, the Browns, nor George McKay list his name.[12] Nor has it been found in directories or newspapers in other towns. Coincidentally, the name itself is similar to that of the fourth son of the Earl of Dartmouth, Henry Bilson-Legge, who died in England the year after Henry B. Legge, bookbinder, was born. The newspaper advertisements reveal only what we should have been able to guess from this signed binding of the Salisbury town Bible, that the binder was trained in England and was capable of especially fine and durable work.

Four features of this binding are unusual in American work: the material, the technique, the decoration, and the signature. The use of diced Russia is unusual as early as the turn of the century though a version of it was popular about 1820. The use of the double leather joint, even for so heavy a book, was all but unknown. The symbolic ornamentation of the covers, combining the dove and the two serpents is far more imaginative than was common. Finally, the signing of the binding in gold at the foot of the spine appears in only one other American binding, that of the first American edition of Shakespeare, signed by Lightbody.[13] What makes the Boston binding unique is the inclusion of the place as well as the binder's name in the signature.

Although his name is not found in the city directories, John Lightbody worked for the Library Company of Philadelphia in June of 1798. Nothing more is known about him, to date, except the date of his death and that of his son in October of that same year — presumably of yellow fever.[14] Lightbody, good Scottish name, may have been even more of a wanderer than Legge. Each man is known by one signed binding, and each man has used symbolism in the decoration of his work. Lightbody adorned his covers with a stencilled eagle; Legge used the dove and serpents of the Bible. If their work emerges from


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the shadows at some later date they may be found to have more connection.

One other American binder used a gold-tooled signature somewhat later but he placed it inside the cover rather than on the spine.[15] John Roulstone, Boston binder also, did not date his signed bindings but they appear to have been done around 1820. A donation of a syllabus of Dr. Francis Nicholls's lectures from John Nicholls of London, presented to Harvard by Ward Nicholas Boylston, is lettered inside the front cover, "Bound by J. Roulstone, Boston."[16] Two identical copies of the folio Book of Common Prayer, printed in New York by Hugh Gaine in 1795, probably bound about twenty-five years later, are similarly signed, "Roulstone, J. Binder, Boston," this time inside the back covers. The prayer book is far too thin a folio to allow for a signature on the spine. John Roulstone was a native Bostonian who died in 1826, aged forty-eight, after a bookbinding career of twenty-three years. He worked on Congress Street in 1803, and from 1810 to 1823 at 10 State Street. Roulstone and Legge appear to have worked in the same building if not the same shop. We do not know to whom Roulstone was apprenticed and where he learned his craft, but he became an excellent binder. His superior workmanship and method of signing suggest that he may have learned from Henry Bilson Legge, binder of Caleb Bingham's presentation copy of "the most beautiful production of its nature hitherto seen."



I wish to express my grateful thanks to Mrs. Carolyn Horton who reported on the Salisbury Bible. When the book came to her hands for restoration, the inscription of my title was at the foot of the spine and she immediately recognized its importance. In addition I wish to thank Mrs. Lila Nash, Town Clerk of Salisbury, for bringing the Bible out of its hiding place, and Timothy Trace, antiquarian bookseller, for urging its restoration.


MS., Town Meeting Records, Salisbury, Conn., 1784-1849.


Gazette of the United States, April 25, 1796.


MS., Robert Aitken's Waste-book, 1771-1802 (in the Library Company of Philadelphia), p. 669, 674.


In December, 1961, Carol and Willman Spawn mounted an exhibition of the work of Robert Aitken, in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Bible, lent by a private collector, is described in a review of the exhibition in TLS, February 24, 1961.


This copy is now in the Wellesley College Library.


R. G. Silver, "The Boston Book Trade, 1790-1799," Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth (1951), p. 292, 294.


Columbian Centinel, June 15, 1799.


Centinel, December 21, 1799.


Centinel, November 10, 1804.


Independent Chronicle, November 12, 1804.


Chronicle, November 15, 1804.


A List of London Bookbinders, 1648-1815 (1950); H. G. Brown & M. O. Brown, A Directory of the Book-Arts and Book Trade in Philadelphia to 1820 (1950); A Directory of Printing, Publishing, Bookselling and Allied Trades in Rhode Island to 1865 (1958); A Register of Artists, Engravers, Booksellers, Bookbinders, Printers, and Publishers in New York City, 1633-1820 (1942).


Edwin Wolf, II, "A Signed American Binding on the First American Edition of Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961), 153.


Gazette of the United States, October 26, 1798, taken from the original file of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements of Philadelphia craftsmen, compiled by P. P. Prime, now in the library of Winterthur Museum.


H. D. French, "Early American Bookbinding by Hand," Bookbinding in America, ed. by Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt (1941), p. 82.


The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Md., The History of Bookbinding, 525-1950 A.D., an Exhibition Held at the Baltimore Museum of Art, November 12, 1957 to January 12, 1958 (1957), No. 616.


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