Ever wonder what people were reading in the 19th century? A great way to see what the most popular books were at a particular time is to look at account books from publishing firms and booksellers. Now, even more interestingly, ever wonder what people were reading on ships in the 19th century? How about looking at an account book from booksellers working in a port! AAS has just such an account book.
AAS has the daybook of William Augustus Bartow (link to catalog record), a bookseller and paper merchant from New York. Between the years 1825 and 1835, Bartow, along with his partner Brannan, sold books, stationary merchandise, and general merchandise to schooners and captains. Their business was based in Washington D.C.
It’s hard to say whether the merchandise sold was actually used by the crew, or if it was being transported by the ships to be sold elsewhere. However, when looking at some of the transactions, it’s occasionally safe to assume the crew was using the merchandise when small quantities were being purchased. For example, the crew was probably using those 5 copies of the bible, not selling them. But when the quantities get into the 100s, it’s possible these items were being transported for sale.
Flipping through the pages of the Bartow daybook is an excellent, and really fun way of reconstructing life on a ship in the 19th century. We are reminded of how young some of the crew members on board were when we see text books, such as arithmetic and grammar books, being bought. Then again, this also reminds us of how many crew members, both young and old, were uneducated. We also can imagine the long days at sea, away from loved ones, when seeing the purchase of large quantities of stationary, pens and ink.
I do wonder, however, who was the one crew member brave enough (or with a good enough sense of humor) to read a copy of Robinson Crusoe while on board a ship.