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Page 161

James E. May

On August 27, 1760, seven men in the town of Bellingham, Massachusetts, signed an agreement to acquire jointly a seven-volume edition of Tobias Smollett's A Complete History of England. [1] This set is now in the Archives and Special Collections Department of Amherst College Library, the gift of a descendent of one of the original purchasers.[2] The books are interesting for revealing reading tastes in an eighteenth-century community, but they are of special significance because of an early transcription of the agreement itself that is pasted into the first volume. This document, transcribed below, affords a rare glimpse into the organization of an early American book club, while various annotations in the set also suggest that these books with others formed a short-lived communal library in Bellingham around 1800.

The seven purchasers apparently were all farmers in a town thirty-five miles southwest of Boston. Bellingham at the time had about 500 residents, many of them connected by family and marriage, church membership, or sheer physical proximity. Its economy depended to at least some degree on travellers between Boston and Hartford, cities from which the residents would obtain raw materials or items not produced locally. A modern historian of the town, Bruce Lord, suggests that the organizer of the group might have been the Reverend Elnathan Wight, Baptist pastor of the only church in the community.[3]


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Wight appears to have been the common element among the parties, and his vocation and his education may have tended to make him a leader in such matters. (None of the participants had any college education, but Wight had studied theology and classical languages under an ordained minister in 1747-49.) Wight's family, moreover, eventually ended up with the books. Wight had been among the fifteen signers of the first covenant of the church, on 23 November 1737; he donated the land for its building in 1744; he became (under provisional Congregational ordination) its pastor in 1750; and he was ordained (by Baptist ministers) in 1755,[4] serving the congregation until his death at age 46 in 1761.[5]

Many of the signers were linked to Wight through the church or through family connections. Among them was one of his nephews, Samuel Wight, a local farmer and civic office-holder whose father had signed the 1737 church covenant and was a deacon in the church. The father of participant Eliphelet Holbrook, Jr., had also signed that covenant; the younger Holbrook married the Rev. Wight's niece (Samuel Wight's sister) in 1753. Ebenezer Partridge (“Patridge” in the document) was from Franklin, a few miles east of Bellingham, but he died in Bellingham; he was probably the brother of still another signer of the 1737 covenant (Joseph Partridge, born in 1705). Ebenezer Holbrook, who was born in nearby Mendon but died in Bellingham, contributed to the church's ministerial fund in 1743 and signed its 1750 covenant; he married a Keziah Wight early in 1748 and may have been related to the Rev. Wight by marriage. Silas Wheelock was baptized by Wight in 1756. Mathew Smith is the most shadowy of the partners; he died in Bellingham in 1776.

From what can be determined about the participants, they appear to


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have been from 30 to 50 years old, and their names seem to be listed in order of decreasing age—a practice in accord with the contract's first stipulation, which assigned borrowing rights from “the oldest, unto the youngest.” The first signer, Partridge, was described upon his death in 1794 as “an old man.” He seems to have been born around 1710 and would have been about 50 at the time of the agreement. The Rev. Wight, who follows, was then 45. Ebenezer Holbrook, the third signer and longest survivor of the group, died in 1805 at 88; he was 43 when the compact was made. The sixth signer on the list, Eliphelet Holbrook, Jr., died in 1776 at age 51 or 52; in 1760 he was about 35, five years older than the final signatory, Samuel Wight, who would have been about 30 (he died in 1790 at age 60). The ages of the fourth and fifth signers have to be inferred more indirectly. Smith had a daughter born in Bellingham in 1753; he could well have been younger than Ebenezer Holbrook (43) and older than Eliphelet Holbrook, Jr. (35). The most problematic is Wheelock. He died in 1793, and he, his wife, and his daughter had been baptized by Elnathan Wight in 1756. His daughter would have had to be old enough to receive adult baptism in Wight's Baptist congregation and could well have been born in the 1740s—and her father born shortly before 1725, making him slightly older than Eliphelet Holbrook.

The document itself is written on a half-sheet of paper, probably pot, and measures 192 by 316 mm. Because the paper is laid (with an Arms of England watermark and chainlines about 24 mm. apart), it almost certainly derives from the eighteenth century. The manuscript is clearly a transcription, for all the signatures are in the same hand. It is glued to the front paste-down and attached to the inside of the first free endpaper of volume 1 of the Complete History (and is now split at the fold, with the two parts measuring respectively 192 × 123 mm. and 192 × 193 mm.). The text of the agreement occupies one entire side of the paper, and the signees' names are on the back of the lower portion. Pencilled notes next to the names of both Wights suggest what is supported by Wight family signatures on the endpapers—that this was probably Samuel or Elnathan's copy of the agreement.

The contract consists of an introduction identifying the books and specifying the purchase price, six articles delineating their use, and a conclusion and seven signatures binding the signers and their heirs to the terms. The group had acquired the seven-volume edition, published in London late in December 1758, rather than the eleven-volume one, not available in London until June or July of 1760. Presumably that choice reflects the relative cost and availability of the editions. Although the seven-volume edition may have been convenient for distribution among the purchasers, it seems to me more likely that the size of the membership was determined by the number of books in the set. The price the members paid, £3 14s 8d in Massachusetts currency, was in any event an attractive one. The seven-volume set had been originally offered in London for £2 15s in boards (as advertised in the London Evening Post on 30 December 1758 and throughout the next year); with the appropriate multiplier for that time of 1.3, the equivalent price in


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Bellingham would have been £3 11s 6d.[6] As the objects themselves reveal, however, the set in question was not sewn in boards but bound in calf. A contemporary London price announces the charge for similar work (“octavos, demy calf”) as a shilling per volume;[7] the Bellingham residents therefore paid four or five Massachusetts shillings less than they might have been expected to—a figure all the more surprising if the price included transportation charges.

The six provisos focus on physical custody—who got which volume at the start, how volumes might be exchanged, who besides members might borrow the books, how ownership would be affected if a member died or moved from the area, and where the agreement itself would be stored. Though all seven people had an equal financial stake in the undertaking, priority in first choosing a volume to read devolved according to age. Though indviduals might have made personal arrangements to see volumes in a certain order, the assumption behind the rules seems to be that the volumes usually would not be read consecutively. Unlike with a subscription library, the owners of the books shared no central depository, and borrowing was to occur privately outside of any regular meeting or gathering.

The joint purchase and the agreed rules for borrowing books and keeping track of them thus produced a book club. At some point the volumes were reunited physically, for all were annotated in the same hand and pen on the recto of the front free endpaper with the phrases “The Bellingham Library” and “Book N°,” followed by a number from 32 to 38. That this occurred by 1816 is indicated by an ownership inscription in volume 1 that crosses out the library notation, identifies the book as the property of A. and S. Wight, and gives the date May 7, 1816. The library numbers in the books point to the existence of a larger collection, almost a century before what is otherwise considered to be the first library in the town, the present public one that was established in 1894.[8] A subscription library at the end of the eighteenth century or beginning of the next certainly would have been in the spirit of the times, for catalogs and advertisements testify to a good number of such organizations during that era in Massachusetts.[9]


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The “A. & S. Wight” whose names appeared not only in the first volume but, in expanded form, in all the others as well were Abiram and Seneca Wight, descendents of two of the original subscribers. Their ownership suggests that the spirit and to some extent the letter of the 1760 agreement remained in effect. The books had remained in Bellingham, and they had done so in the context of respect for age, specifically of primogeniture. Abiram, born in 1763, was the eldest surviving son of co-purchaser Samuel Wight; his second-cousin Seneca was the eldest son of a son of another subscriber, the Rev. Elnathan Wight. The intermediate generation, Seneca's father Eliab, had been Elnathan's second son, but Eliab seems to have inherited rights to the books because, as Lord notes, his elder brother moved from the area. The cousins gave the books new numbers, this time 47 through 53; the joint ownership of at least fifty-three volumes suggests the vestige of a book club ideal.

The division of rights to the books is made clear by a note that Seneca added to the first volume: on the verso of the front free endpaper he wrote, “The history of 7 Volums belongs one half to Seneca Wight and the other half to Marcy & Luceny Wight.” Marcy and Luceny (spelled “Lusina” in other documents) were Abiram's younger sisters (born in 1766 and 1769). Whether by inheritance, purchase, or other transfer of claim, Seneca eventually acquired sole ownership of the books. At that point he crossed out the joint ownership inscriptions in all seven volumes and signed his own name above (vol. 1) or below (vols. 2-7). Beside his name he repeated the book numbers the volumes had been assigned when they were the joint property of himself and Abiram.

In 1859 Seneca gave the Smollett set to Josiah T. Reade, the son of his next eldest sister, Abigail, and her husband Samuel T. Reade. Beneath the ownership inscription for himself and the two Wight women he recorded this gift: “This history of 7 volums given to Josiah J. Read my nephew July 28th 1859 Seneca Wight.” His echoing of the 1816 ownership inscription suggests a respectful consciousness of the status of the books as Wight family heirlooms and also as vehicles for a historic tradition of shared book ownership.

Some of Reade's substantial library was inherited by his grandson Ralph W. B. Reade, who gave the books to the library of Amherst College, Josiah T. Reade's alma mater, about 1944. That donation brings the history of the Smollett edition up to date, though it keeps alive the question of whether other books belonging to “The Bellingham Library,” or indeed to the eighteenth-century subscription group, still exist. No other books from Reade at Amherst qualify. John Lancaster writes, however, that when Josiah T. Reade died in 1929, at age 100, “Most of his books went to the Helen M. Plum Memorial Library in Lombard, Illinois, where he and Colonel Plum


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had been stalwart book collectors—Plum apparently had enough money to endow the institution, but Reade's 3,000+ volumes made up a large part of the collection.”[10]

An exhaustive search in the Plum Memorial Library near Chicago might turn up other books that a century or two ago stood on the shelf next to the Bellingham Smollett—and produce more tales of the roles that books have played in the lives of their owners and readers.


Bellingham August ye 27 1760

We the subscribers have purchased a complete [the te written over at] / History of England from the decent [the c written over s] of Julius / Cesar to the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, 1748 / Containing the Transactions of 1830 years— / the whole history consisteth of seven voloms the / price of the whole three pouns [last four letters of next word interlined with caret] fourteen shilings and [next word interlined above canceled four] eight / pence and each of us have paid our equal part of / the first cost and we unanimously agree / to the following articles—

(1.) That each one of us shall have his choice / which volome to read first according to their / age beginning with the oldest, unto the / youngest—

(2.) That when any one of us has red his / volum [?word blotted] through that he shall have / the priviledge to change with any one of / us tho' the other has not red his through / except there be any one of us that may / happen to have red his thro' at the same / time, then they shall exchange with each / other—

(3.) That any two of us shall have the / priviledge to exchange with each other / just when they please—

(4.) That none of us shall lend any one volum / to any person to read except it be to such / as live with us in our own houses—

(5.) That when any one of us shall be taken / away by death that one of the hairs / of the deceased shall come in upon his right / but if the said heir shall live at such a / distance from us so that the rest of the / owners of these books shall judge it illcon- / veniant for him to keep his part he shall / be obliged to sell it to such person as the / major part of us shall agree to. So if any / one of us shall sell his farm and remove / to such a distance as to make it illcon- / veniant he shall be obliged to sell his / part as above mentioned—

(6.) That these article of agreement shall / be [next two words interlined with caret above canceled kept by] loged with some one person in whom we / are all agreed—

We whose names are after written / bind our selves and our heirs firmly to / abide by the above articles so that if any / one of us should [willingly, canceled] and willingly / break either of the above articles he shall / forfit his right to said History this thing we / all agree to as witness our hands

Ebenezer Patridge

Elnathan Wight [next word and date written in pencil] died 1761

Ebenezr Holbrook

Silas Wheelock


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Mathew Smith

Eliphelet [the h written over 1 and the second 1 written over t] Holbrook jun

Samuel Wight / [next description (written below), and set of braces around description and previous name, in pencil] nephew of Elnathan + dies 1790



This octavo edition (ESTC N1503) was published in London by James Rivington, James Fletcher, and Richard Baldwin, Jr., in December 1758. It was sold with a promissory note for 167 engraved plates and an index until those were made available on 27 November 1760 (London Evening Post, 20-22 November 1760). Smollett's Complete History had first appeared in four quarto volumes in 1757-58 and was also serialized, with engraved plates, in 110 parts from 1758 to 1760 for collection as an eleven-volume octavo set.


The copy's shelf-mark is RBR Assoc. Sm. The volumes, lacking plates and index, are bound in contemporary calf with double gilt rules around the boards and a red spine label reading `SMOLLETT'S| HIST. OF| ENGLAND'. I am grateful to John Lancaster, Curator of Special Collections, for encouraging me to publish a note transcribing this document and for checking for relevant manuscript notations in other books bequeathed with this set to Amherst College. The document is printed through the courtesy of Amherst College Library.


Mr. Lord has been extraordinarily generous to the author, and his help has been indispensable for determining the age of several signers of the manuscript. He has provided me with several dozen manuscript pages of his histories of the town, the First Baptist Church, and some prominent families. His research draws in part on the “Record of First Baptist Church of Bellingham,” held at the Franklin Trask Library, Phillips Andover Academy, microfilmed for the John Hay Library of Brown University. I also extend grateful acknowledgement to Laura Einstadter, Librarian of the Bellingham Public Library, who fielded my queries and introduced me to Mr. Lord.

The ecclesiastical circumstances in mid-century Bellingham are described in George F. Partridge, History of the Town of Bellingham, Massachusetts, 1719-1919 (Bellingham: Town of Bellingham, 1919), pp. 84-85; see also Ernest Taft's The Town of Bellingham Massachusetts 1719-1997 (Bellingham: Printed by KMS Services for Ernest A. Taft, 1997), p. 52.


His ordination sermon was published as Ministers Ambassadors for Christ. A Sermon Preached at Bellingham, January 15, 1755. With some inlargement. By Elnathan Wight, then ordain'd pastor of a Church of Christ there. To which is added, a summary confession of faith, agreed to by the church under his watch and care (Boston: Printed by Edes & Gill, 1755). His ordination is described in Abial Fisher, Jr., Century Sermons: Two Discourses, Delivered at Bellingham, in the Year 1822 (Worcester, Mass.: William Manning, 1822), pp. 17-20.


The most important compilation of biographical information about the early residents of Bellingham, and the one on which I base most of the biographical details in this paper, is Vital Records of Bellingham, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1904). That collection frequently cites a diary (now lost) kept from 1755 to 1849 by Samuel Wight (one of the signers) and his daughters that records the deaths of all the other signers—and in so doing suggests their familiarity with each other, or at least with the Wight family.


I take 1.3 Massachusetts pounds per 1 pound sterling as a conservative estimate after consulting John J. McCusker's exchange values in Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, 1978). Table 3.1 offers 127.08 for the May 1760 exchange and 135 for the December 1760 exchange; the exchange during the preceding and following six years was usually set at 133.3.


To the Booksellers of London and Westminster... the Bookbinders of London and Westminster, by a general Agreement, have fixed the following Prices for Binding, noting “The Prices for Binding agreed on the 2nd of June 1760,” transcribed by Mirjam M. Foot on pp. 315-319 of “Some Bookbinders' Price Lists of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” De Libris Compactis Miscellanea (Studia Bibliothecae Wittockianae, 1), ed. Collegit G. Colin (Brussels: Bibliotheca Wittockiana, 1984).


Lord has also found evidence of another earlier library: the Bellingham Historical Commission's archives contain an eight-page manuscript bearing the notation “A Catalogue of books in the United Library Association Society. Bellingham Mass Nov, 21 / 1854.” It lists 104 titles—but not Smollett's Complete History.


For this observation, as for many other improvements, I am indebted to David Vander Meulen, who has cited for me the following examples with the entry numbers from Charles Evans's American Bibliography or Ralph R. Shaw and Richard H. Shoemaker's American Bibliography [“S&S”]: Boston, 1789 (Evans 21868), 1795 (Evans 28317), 1805 (S&S 8244); Dorchester, 1801 (S&S 50209); Medfield, 1816 (S&S 38211); Roxbury, 1819 (S&S 49330); Salem 1797 (Evans 32800); and Worcester, 1793 (Evans 26506).


Personal correspondence, 28 October 1998.


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