At the recent New York Book Fair we were fortunate to be able to acquire an important copy of William Maitland’s gorgeous folio History of London belonging to the Library Company’s original purchasing agent Peter Collinson (1694-1768) and heavily annotated by him throughout. Bernard Cohen, in his book Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments, remarked that “Collinson is the most important single person in Franklin’s career.” Collinson discovered Franklin and encouraged him by making him known to members of the Royal Society. In addition to assisting him in his early career, Collinson acted as agent for Franklin’s Library Company in London, and in that capacity sent to the Company information about “curious facts relative to electricity” along with a tube for experiments.
The hundreds of annotations and notes in Collinson’s hand that adorn our new acquisition reflect the inquiring and engaging mind of an 18th-century gentleman of the Enlightenment who corresponded with notable scientists in London and abroad, in addition to Franklin. Given the emphasis on London buildings in Maitland’s History, it is not surprising that a number of Collinson’s notes are about the physical fabric of the city, including three folio sized pages inserted at the beginning that are filled with Collinson’s observations about buildings and development in London. But he has many comments as well about daily life – a harrowing account of bear-baiting; politics, especially the observation of the Restoration of King Charles, May 29, 1765; the fashion for farthingales and flat bonnets; natural “phenomena,” such as an account of standing on the wharf next to “the Bridge” and observing a dry river with the keel of every ship and boat exposed; and on and on. A very rich portrait of the greatest city in the world at that time emerges with remarkable vividness in these firsthand accounts.
The volume was brought to the attention of Library Company Trustee Davida Deutsch by rare book dealer John O’Mara of Maggs Bros. Ltd. Happily, Ms. Deutsch was joined at the Fair by fellow Trustee Clarence Wolf, who agreed that the History was something the Library Company had to have and acted quickly to arrange the purchase. Several additional Trustees contributed to making the acquisition possible.