February 20

detail of The Bay Psalm Book title page

On this day, in 1947, James T. Babb, librarian of Yale University, journeyed to New York City with a check in his pocket made out in the sum of $151,000 to Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, America’s great rare book dealer. In return for this slip of paper he received a copy of what appeared to be a rather insignificant little book containing 294 pages and bearing upon its title page the words, “The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre.” At the foot of the page was the simple inscription “Imprinted 1640.”

This, then, was the Bay Psalm Book as printed by Stephen Day in the Bay Colony of Massachusetts—the first book to be printed in the American Colonies. Yale University now owned this most desirable American book to display alongside its copy of the Gutenberg Bible. But the astute Dr. Rosenbach was hit for a $50,000 loss where it hurt the most—to his own pocketbook.

Late in 1946 it was reported that the Crowninshield-Stevens-Brinley-Vanderbilt-Whitney copy of the famous book was to be auctioned for the benefit of a Long Island hospital early in 1947. Since this volume was one of just three perfect copies out of the eleven known, there was a great deal of excitement in the book world. The last time that a perfect Bay Psalm Book had come up for sale was in 1879 when the very same copy had been sold for $1200.

Dr. Rosenbach, who had been instrumental in obtaining the Gutenberg Bible for the Yale Library, immediately began to work upon a similar plan. He hoped to interest wealthy Yale alumni in contributing toward the purchase of the book, on which Rosenbach would receive his usual commission. The idea bore fruit. Within a week $85,000 had been pledged for such a purpose. Yale officials promptly expressed their desire to acquire the book. Rosenbach’s agent, John F. Fleming, was thereby authorized to bid up to $90,000 at the auction.

The actual sale was an event of historical importance in the book world. Everything would undoubtedly have gone according to plan, but Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, acting upon a whim, decided to bid for the book. Fleming’s bids were matched by those of Scribner’s, from $55,000 up to $91,000. At this point the Scribner man dropped out and Fleming was sure that the book was his. Whereupon Mr. Whitney bid $95,000 and the battle was on. Every time that Fleming bid an extra thousand dollars, Whitney raised it to an even five thousand, until finally at $151, 000 the little volume was knocked down to Fleming.

Now Rosenbach had his book, but the pledges toward its eventual purchase by Yale were short some $60,000. The price he had paid was the highest ever given for a printed book at a public auction. He was sure that this fact alone would generate sufficient interest to raise the extra cash. However such was not to be the case. Yale ruefully imagined that it had lost its Bay Psalm Book. Dr. Rosenbach, figuring that perhaps the actual possession of the book would help the University raise the balance, wrote to the school suggesting that he send the book—along with his check for $49,900—receiving in return a Yale check for $151,000. In his letter Rosenbach mentioned that he was “not asking for any remuneration whatsoever,” meaning only, of course, that he would not charge his usual commission.

After Yale had its book, letters began to pour into the good Doctor’s office praising him for his magnificent “gift” to the college. It soon became evident that the balance was not going to be made up. From that point on, bitterness reigned, along with threats of lawsuits. Rosenbach never received his balance, and on the record he does stand as a benefactor of the University, albeit a reluctant one.


  1. Emily Martin says:

    This whole blog is so much fun. Keep up the great work.
    PS Sorry, I am a compulsive proofreader, in the second paragraph near the end Dr Rosenbach has an h instead of a b in his name:
    “But the astute Dr. Rosenhach was hit for a $50,000 loss where it hurt the most—to his own pocketbook.”

  2. ASL archivist says:

    Thanks Emily. Isn’t Lawson a great read? That’s the whole point of this I suppose. There’s so much he wrote and it’s all so good. It’s a shame more people don’t read him other than his masterwork “Anatomy of a Typeface.”

    And keep those corrections coming. Most days I feel like a glorified typist. I am always happy to know anyone is reading so carefully.

    I’d appreciate knowing what platform & browser you’re viewing the site on. I keep futzing with the style sheet to optimize it with the new typeface, courtesy of Typekit. Tell your friends and let me know if there’s anything I can look in the files for you. And don’t forget the ASL’s brother site, Typocurious.

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