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On the use of bookdealers’ invoices

Written by Susan Finding, Emeritus Professor, University of Poitiers, Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge |

In the course of an ongoing research project into collectors and collections of economic corpora, I have had the privilege to consult invoices for purchases of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts and maps in the papers of H.S. Foxwell at Senate House Library, University of London and the Baker Library at Harvard, those of J.M. Keynes at King's College and Piero Sraffa at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge and those of E.R.A. Seligman at Columbia University Library, New York.

Such collections of invoices give insights into not just the collection or the collector but also provenance of certain items, and the book trade overall.  While the physical examination of the books and pamphlets in the collection may reveal indications as to their source (binder’s stamp, bookseller’s mark, bookplates, binding marks, even handwritten notes on the endpapers), invoices give an overall picture of purchases made and can further help trace provenance.

For the Library concerned, the contents of the holdings deposited by the collector can be checked against the invoices, identifying what the collector passed on to them, or retained for future use or resale. The extensiveness of the collection, the price paid for the items, and clues as to their provenance can be gained from knowing which dealer provided them. If the dealers’ catalogues can be sourced, the items are sometimes listed as coming ‘from the library of’, which in turn provides further provenance details.

Secondly, invoices can inform about the books being bought (frequency of purchases, type of items, prices, quantity, quality) by the collector. They provide a view of the bookdealers being used, the sums being spent, the devotion and doggedness with which certain items were pursued by the collector. They can tell the story of the collector’s buying habits and give some indication as to his aims in putting together the collection. The use of dealers’ catalogues by the buyer can be attested to by numbers attributed to items on the invoices, whilst in other cases, they may indicate that items had by offered on spec to the collector and sent on approval by the dealer, who must therefore have been aware of the collector’s interests, to be kept and paid for or returned.

The invoices may too be annotated and reveal the customer collector’s satisfaction or otherwise with the items received. Conditions of carriage may be specified, and the state in which they were received annotated on the invoice. They also indicate items the collector was hoping but unable to obtain as the dealer would detail the items he could no longer supply as the item had already been sold and was no longer in stock.

In the Senate House Library, the invoices that form part of the Foxwell papers[1] demonstrate several of these points. In the summer of 2021, I was able to examine some of these, and discuss their importance with Dr. Karen Attar, Curator of rare books and university art. Dozens of boxes containing thousands of receipts cover the whole period of his collecting from 1880 to 1930 during which time he acquired upwards of 80 000 items[2], which were subsequently to form the Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature. In view of this, and the fact that each invoice may detail one or two books detailed on the invoice, or referred to by either title or author, or refer simply to a miscellaneous job lot of a number of unspecified pamphlets, collating the exact acquisitions made from each dealer would be difficult, but not impossible in the case of one or two chosen dealers.

However, sample surveys demonstrate the use that can be made of these invoices. They show that he was using the most well-known antiquarian book dealers in London and also had dealings on a regular basis with numerous provincial dealers in England and Scotland. This in itself would make a useful study into the geographical distribution of second-hand book stores throughout the United Kingdom at the time, albeit limited to those dealing in material he was interested in – though few were extremely specialised in economics. Foxwell also acquired items from dealers in France, Germany and the Belgium.

A tally of the number of invoices received shows which dealers he did most business with. A further reckoning of the sums involved would reveal not only the investment the collection represented for Foxwell, but would also provide a picture of the prices commanded both by the books and the particular dealers, with comparisons possible between prices paid for the same book bought at different periods, in the case of multiple acquisitions. 

The invoices in the Foxwell papers also emanate from book binders he sent the items he acquired for new bindings. These show that he broke up and had rebound separately single items that had been acquired in a bound collection of pamphlets. They also show that he was very particular about the quality of the lettering on the spine giving the date of publication and short title. These are further indications, confirming an inspection of the individual copies, or a perusal of the shelves, as to how a collector intended the collection to be arranged: in chronological order and by subject, rather than by author or theme, the better to apprehend the evolution of economic ideas.

Invoices thus have a part to play in the history of the book and the history of collections, enabling further details concerning the intentions behind the collection, the provenance and sourcing of the items, the care, dedication and cost involved in forming a collection, and the state of a specific book market at the time.

[1] Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature, Herbert Somerton Foxwell papers, Senate House Library, University of London, GB 96 MS 1228 and MS 1115.

[2] J. M. Keynes, ‘Herbert Somerton Foxwell 1849-1936’, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXIII, 1936.