Book-Buying in Baltimore

Sarah Arndt, PhD Candidate in History at Trinity College, Dublin, describes one of the treasures she found during her recent fellowship at AAS.

Click to see full-sized image

Have you ever wondered what your shopping receipts say about you?  What sort of conclusions would someone make about you by examining the sorts of food, clothing or books you purchased?  Recently, I had the opportunity to explore some 200 year old receipts, to try and find out what books the citizens of Baltimore were buying.  During my stint as a short-term fellow of the AAS I was able to spend some time with the Mathew Carey papers, a collection of 27  boxes of accounts from the various Carey publishing firms of Philadelphia, to see if I could trace the books available for sale in early nineteenth century Baltimore.  In these papers I found something unexpected but amazing.  Mathew Carey opened a branch of his bookstore in Baltimore during the first few years of the nineteenth century, the daily sales of which survive nearly intact from 1804 to 1808.

These ledgers record the purchases of books and stationery by everyday citizens and other retail booksellers day by day and week by week over this period.  They also include lists of stock sent to the store by Carey from Philadelphia.  These types of records are quite rare, and are the only items I know of their kind for Baltimore.  Here we have a glimpse into the purchasing habits of early Americans.  What these records reveal is a very practical approach to book buying.  Most of the books sold to individuals were educational: school books, dictionaries, primers, or catechisms.  Even the other retail booksellers were mostly just purchasing larger numbers of these same items from Carey.  Bibles and small chapbooks were also common purchases along with wax, paper and quills.  Most purchases cost less than $1, with many costing less than fifty cents.

What then does this tell us about the readers of Baltimore?  They purchased books which served practical purposes in their home, books which could be passed down from one family member to the next: primers, spelling books and dictionaries to teach children to read and Bibles and catechisms to instill religion.  These books were relatively inexpensive, and it seems that many people were unwilling to spend too much on the purchase of books.  If these individuals were interested in reading the latest novels they were unlikely to purchase them from Carey’s shop.  Perhaps instead they rented them from a local circulating library, or borrowed them from friends.  This unique source opens up a world of opportunities for exploring the purchasing decisions of Baltimore’s book-buying public, one in which I intend to continue my investigations.

One thought on “Book-Buying in Baltimore

  1. Heather Wilkinson Rojo

    I just saw an item on eBay that would be of interest to the Antiquarian Society.
    this is a package of 150 letters, several diaries, journals and account books, etc. of the Greene Family of Worcester, from the 1790s to the late 1800s. Also plans for a home built in Worcester and diaries of travels to Europe. I hope you bid on it! It would be fun to peruse these someday at your reading room!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *