According to its preface, A New Academy of Compliments: or, Complete Secretary “is a book full of variety, and many things not found in any other.” Without a doubt, this is the most eclectic book to have crossed my desk during many years as a cataloger. It begins with directions for composing letters using examples addressed to a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a child, a master, an apprentice, and to friends. Next are sample dialogues for the tongue tied, rules of etiquette, and advice on courtship. Guys, here’s just one line you might try when approaching the girl of your dreams:
Think it not strange, mistress, if I should speak the truth, and tell you, that I have a long time been broiling on the flames of ardent affection towards your dear self.
[You can read the entire first page of the dialogue at the end of this post.]
A chapter on fortune enumerates signs of a successful marriage, describes the art of getting and keeping money in hard times, interprets dreams and moles, and lists which are the “evil or perilous days in every month of the year.” Those beginning a journey on one of these days are in danger of death during the journey, and those who marry “shall either be quickly parted, or else live together with much sorrow and discontent.” Planning ahead perilous days during the next three months are November 15th and 19th, December 5th, 6th, and 11th, and January 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 10th, 15th, 17th, and 19th. Hibernating for the month of January seems like a good idea for a lot of reasons.
But wait, there’s more. Another chapter illustrates, with pictures and written instructions, “the silent language, by motion of the hands.” With a bit of practice, or keeping the book at hand to follow the instructions, a gentleman could sign “Madam I am your humble servant.” Also, and just in time for the holidays, there’s a chapter containing directions for “carving fish, flesh, and fowl, and other delicacies, after a decent and modish manner.” And finally, the book concludes with “A collection of choice songs.”
Two editions of A New Academy of Compliments: or, Complete Secretary are known, published in New York City in 1799 and 1802 [AAS catalog record] (the illustrations in this post are from the later edition). An earlier edition, printed here in Worcester by Isaiah Thomas in 1795, has title A New Academy of Compliments: or, The Lover’s Secretary [AAS catalog record]; the contents vary slightly. A later edition with the title The American Academy of Compliments; or, The Complete American Secretary [AAS catalog record] was printed by Ashbel Stoddard at Hudson, N.Y. in 1804. The Antiquarian Society holds the Worcester edition and the New York edition from 1802, which was purchased from the bookseller Benjamin Tighe for $22 in 1948. There’s no indication how much the book originally cost but the preface states “tho’ but of a small price may yet nevertheless prove of great value.”
In another word, priceless.