Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On April 3, 1928, a slightly tipsy world, still reeling through the heady Twen­ties, focused its attention on Sotheby’s in London, where one of history’s most famous and beloved of all books was about to be auctioned. Through Sotheby’s dark pas­sages, an excited throng tum­bled into the large auction gallery to see who would offer the winning bid for Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. Barely noticed in the crowd was a small, elderly woman in a black dress, Alice Liddell Har­greaves, the original “Al ice” for whom eccentric Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had lovingly penned and illus­trated the little book in 1864 as “A Christmas Gift to a dear child in memory of a summer day.” As the bidding rose higher and higher, attention focused on a short, round, florid Philadelphian with an unmistakable air of authority. At last, the Philadelphian wiped his glasses and a buzz hummed through the crowd. For $75,259, yet another of the world’s greatest books had just been sold to Doctor R.

The celebrated Doctor R. – known to Parisians as the “Napoleon of Books,” to Sotheby’s habitues as the “Terror of the Auction Room,” as Rosey to friends and as Abie to family – was Dr. Abra­ham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, rare book collector and dealer extraordinaire. “The Doctor,” or “Docky Dear” as he was teasingly addressed by the sassy ghostwriter who con­spired with him to fashion the materials of his life into the even more fabulous legend of the book world’s most auda­cious buccaneer, would now, after this early April afternoon, be forever identified as “the man who bought Alice in Won­derland.”

AU but forgotten since his death in 1952, Rosenbach’s fame was once so widespread that in 1917 he easily received a letter from collector-magician Harry Houdini addressed to “Dr. Rosenbach, Phila., Pa., Finest Book Shop in the World. That’s enough for an address.” That address was no exaggeration. Only the year before, the Finest Book Shop in the World had issued a catalogue which, for the qual­ity of its offerings and their staggering prices, established a landmark in the book trade that only the Rosenbach Com­pany itself was ever able to match. Its pages offered the spectacularly wealthy book­-lover an opportunity to pur­chase “The Finest Dickens Collections Ever Offered for Sale ” at $135,000, or a certified copy of the Declaration of Independence for $160,000. Before the music lover with $25,000 to spare, Rosenbach dangled the original manu­script of the libretto to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. And if the collection of original William Thackeray manu­scripts and sketches for such classics as Vanity Fair was a bargain at $36,750, for $25,000 the Shakespeare First Folio in its original binding was surely a steal.

From venerable medieval illuminated texts of Dante and Chaucer on vellum, Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare Folios to original handwritten manu­scripts and letters of Shelley and Keats, Dickens and Poe, Conrad and Joyce, Rosen­bach’s auction purchases in­cluded most of the important rare books and manuscripts sold in England and America in the twentieth century. For nearly five decades, his win­ning bids broke records and made headlines. In more pri­vate transactions – often spiced with intrigue – he bought entire collections of the world’s greatest manuscripts and let­ters documenting such events as the discovery, exploration and conquest of the New World, the settlement of the British colonies, the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. These and the thousands of other books, manuscripts and letters that passed through the doctor’s bookshop in Philadelphia and second book room in New York City read like a roll call of the great literary and historical moments in modern western civilization. If the prices he paid were fantastic – more than fifty million dollars in one ten year period alone – the prices he commanded were even more so. “Outrageous,” his customers often protested, then gladly paid, for invariably the doctor’s customers also became his friends. Philadel­phia’s Wideners, William Eklins and Lessing Ro­senwald; Henry Folger of Washington, D.C.; and Henry Huntington of San Marino, California, were a few of the many who not only bought from him, but dined and drank with him and, perhaps most importantly, learned from him.

Today, the priceless trea­sures of Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library and the Rosenwald Collections in the Library of Congress and Na­tional Gallery of Art, Harvard University’s Widener Memo­rial Library, California’s Hun­tington Library, and the Elkins Room at the Free Library of Philadelphia stand as a few of the more spectacular monu­ments not only to their found­ers, but to the financial daring, salesmanship, scholarship and vision of the Philadelphia collector-dealer who helped build and shape them. In the process, the colorful exploits of the amazing Doctor R. – splashed across newspaper features and financial pages and duly reported in Time, Fortune, The Atlantic Monthly and The Saturday Evening Post – captured the public’s imagination. During an era that will never see its like, Rosenbach brushed away the layers of dusty pedantry asso­ciated with rare book collecting and gave it a new air of adven­ture, intrigue and romance.

A.S.W. Rosenbach was born July 22, 1876, the year of the great Centennial Exhibi­tion in Philadelphia and the historic sale of George Wash­ington’s library, several vol­umes of which were later to figure prominently in his own career. Undoubtedly, the most formidable influence on Ro­senbach was an old uncle, Moses Polock, whom the doc­tor gradually transformed, with each new embellishment on his favorite anecdotes, into the almost mythic “Uncle Mo,” the quintessential bookman.

Having taken over the publishing and bookselling firm established in Philadelphia in 1780 by children’s book pub­lisher Jacob Johnson, Uncle Mo could justifiably claim to be “the oldest bookseller in the country.” Although Polock did publish the first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, he was a rare book collector at heart and dealer only by necessity. It took the most persistent of customers to wrest a desired prize from the items Uncle Mo was sup­posedly offering for sale, as the old bibliophile clung to his treasure trove of American literary and historical books and documents.

It was from Uncle Mo, no doubt, that his nephew caught auction fever, a chronic disease which became manifest at the tender age of eleven with the purchase of his first book, an illustrated edition of Reynard the Fox, at the Chestnut Street auction house of Stan Henkels. In the excitement, Abie bid twenty-four dollars and suddenly found himself in the embarrassing predicament of being fourteen dollars short. Explaining his plight and that he was the nephew of Moses Polock, Henkels started to laugh. “I’ve seen it start at an early age and run in families,” the good natured auctioneer said, “but in all my experience this is the very first baby bibli­omaniac to come my way.” Making arrangements for the boy to finance his first book purchase on the installment plan, Henkels unwittingly set another dangerous precedent: A.S.W. Rosenbach was now loosed upon the book world.
Rosenbach earned his

Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania where, during the years of voracious reading, he acquired knowledge that was soon to impress his clients and make him stand out in the field of rare book sellers. Seemingly destined for a quiet scholarly life in academe, little did the new doctor realize in 1901 that older brother Philip was about to have other plans, or that his love for Cervantes, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans would enable him to excite others about the beauty he saw in the collections he was about to buy and sell.

It was at this point that Philip Rosenbach, unsuccess­ful stationer, restauranteur, gift shop owner and Edwardian dandy, entered the story with an idea. His failing shop at 1320 Walnut Street and Abie’s knowledge of books, he thought, might finally be just the right combination to as­sure an enjoyable and profit­able occupation for his brother, financial stability for the family and the means of supporting his own increasingly epicurean lifestyle. With financial back­ing and a collection of very rare books on consignment from the doctor’s first collector-friends, Joseph Fox and Clarence Bement, plus the financial benefits of Philip’s amorous liaison with the charming Isabella Fishblatt, the Rosenbach Company was launched in the early summer of 1903. Months later, the company’s first sales – two picture frames for forty dollars each, a book to partner Fox for $11.75, and copies of Captain Gronow’s Reminiscences and a first edition of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to Fishblatt for eighty dollars – were hardly indicators of a prosperous future. In many ways, the Rosenbach Company owed its survival and ultimate success to the Doctor’s final legacy from Uncle Mo.

There was almost an eeriness to the timing of Uncle Mo’s demise in August 1903, only two months after the Rosenbach Company’s crea­tion. With Polock’s death, the surprising treasures squirreled away by the old bookseller came to light. Among the treasures were seven volumes from George Washington’s library which Uncle Mo had kept since buying them at the famous book sale in 1876. Now catalogued for auction by Stan Henkels, Polock’s Library­ – particularly the Washington books – provided the doctor with an entre to one of the greatest American book barons of them all, J. Pierpont Mor­gan. Enlisting the financier’s bids on the Washington items, Rosenbach also used the op­portunity to sell him partner Bement’s consigned copy of the 1611 first edition of the King James Bible for $1750 – the Doctor’s first major rare book sale. Executing Morgan’s commissions at the Polock auction, Rosenbach secured five of the Washington vol­umes for him. Using what was to become a characteristically Rosenbachian mode of creative financing to borrow against future sales, the doctor bought most of the other items as stock for the new Walnut Street establishment. A true kindred spirit of Moses Polock, he was also unable to part with one of the choicest of the Washington books, a volume containing three rare pam­phlets on the 1787 Constitu­tion. Thanks to Uncle Mo, Rosenbach was off to an auspi­cious beginning!

Sometime in 1905, Rosen­bach was introduced to Harry Widener, a Harvard junior, the youngest member of an entire family of collectors and grand­son of Peter A. B. Widener, the richest man in Philadelphia. Harry’s and Rosenbach’s scholarly bent and youthful enthusiasm for books provided the cement that quickly sealed their friendship. Curious at first about their Harry’s new friend, after a dazzling evening of the Doctor’s beguiling about the colorful world of writers and their works, the Wideners were charmed and immedi­ately became major Rosenbach patrons. P.A.B. Widener started with richly bound sets and illustrated books while his son Joseph followed with colorplate portfolios relating to this passion for horseracing. Harry’s mother spent an addi­tional twenty thousand dollars for color plate books, bringing the Widener total to nearly fifty thousand dollars in two months. Easily convinced that a set of the four Shakespeare Folios was “a must” for any collector as serious as Harry, Mrs. Widener also bought copies of the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios from the Doctor for an additional $8700. These Widener purchases helped the Rosenbach book­keepers finally rewrite the company ledgers in black ink.

By 1910, Harry Widener himself began buying in ear­nest and his selections – an autographed presentation copy of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ own copy of Sketches by Boz and other Dickensiana; first editions of Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Milton’s Paradise Lost; Thackeray drawings and more – served notice that he had developed into a knowl­edgeable and discriminating collector. Abe Rosenbach’s success in acquiring books for the Wideners soon began drawing other noteworthy Philadelphia collectors into the Walnut Street store, among them was Harry’s cousin Wil­liam M. Elkins, destined to become a pre-eminent collec­tor of Dickens and Americana and one of the Doctor’s closest friends.

It was at the famous Hoe sale in 1911, the most impor­tant book sale ever held in America, that A.S.W. Rosen­bach finally emerged on the national scene. With high hopes of securing a number of the best offerings from the collection of the late Robert Hoe, the Doctor and three generations of Wideners jour­neyed to New York. The sale proved to be a clash of the titans, with Henry E. Hun­tington and J. P. Morgan virtu­ally sweeping the field and Huntington emerging as an important new figure in Amer­ican book collecting. Bitterly disappointed at the books he and his friends had Jost, Ro­senbach was unaware of how his persistence as a serious contender for lot after lot made an impression on all those present – and Huntington in particular. Little by little, they began buying his books and sending auction commissions his way.

Banking on his own sales­manship and increased aware­ness that a rare book was worth as much as someone was willing and able to pay for it, the Doctor took his first real flyer on a $79,000 loan from his friend Bill Elkins to buy Harry B. Smith’s famous “Sentimen­tal Library.” An unusual collec­tion of literary conversation pieces, each having some personal relationship to its author – such as Mary Godwin’s copy of Queen Mab with Shelley’s note on the inside back cover, “You see, Mary, I have not forgotten you,” and Keats’ manuscript of “On First Looking into Chap­man’s Homer” – the “Senti­mental Library” was more than worth its price in publicity.

“For a price said to exceed $500,000 … ,” newspapers an­nounced the Doctor’s purchase of the Marsden J. Perry Collec­tion, the greatest Shakespeare collection then in private hands. Soaring still higher, Rosenbach’s next major pur­chase was the Robert Schuhmann Collection, one million dollars worth of the greatest eighteenth century French books in beautiful bindings ever to come to America. In 1923, the Doctor equaled the Schuhmann pur­chase with yet another “mil­lion dollar collection,” the original prints and proofs of France’s greatest artists of the rococo, assembled in the nine­teenth century by the Roederer family of champagne mag­nates. No sooner were the Roederer crates unpacked, when they were followed by those of another superb Euro­pean collection, the Ellsworth Library, containing a Guten­berg Bible, a complete set of the four Shakespeare Folios, and many more treasures to make the head of the most jaded collector spin. The doc­tor created his biggest stir that year, however, with his pur­chases from the collection of New York lawyer John Quinn. If the book world was shocked by Rosenbach’s willingness to spend $72,000 on the major manuscripts of Joseph Conrad, James Joyce was offended by the news that the Doctor had paid only $1950 for his manu­script of Ulysses and promptly consigned him to a literary hell as the scurrilous “Rosebruch” in Finnegan’s Wake. (Upon meeting Rosenbach and find­ing that he liked him very much, indeed, Joyce later sent the churlish Rosebruch pack­ing into oblivion.) By 1926, such was the Doctor’s reputa­tion that when the famous Melk Abbey Gutenberg Bible came up for sale, the public expected Rosenbach to buy it. He did. With a winning bid of $106,000, he set a record that was to stand for twenty years as the highest price ever paid at auction for a printed book.

Another important Pennsyl­vania collector, William Elkins, not only bought from Rosen­bach but was willing to ven­ture large sums on his friend’s salesmanship, first with the $79,000 loan to finance the Doctor’s purchase of the “Sen­timental Library,” and another $200,000 for the Marsden Perry Shakespeare Collection. In addition to buying the original manuscript of “Annabel Lee” in Poe’s elegantly eccentric hand and Dickens’ postage scale, candle lamp and desk, Elkins was easily persuaded to take Rosenbach’s famous Dick­ens Collection of presentation copies of the author’s best­-known works, proof-sheets, ephemera, letters and mementos – a group that was truly as advertised, “The World’s Greatest Dickens Col­lection Ever Offered for Sale.” In lieu of repayment of yet another loan to help Rosen­bach secure the famous Hers­chel Jones library of Americana, Elkins gladly took home a major portion of the greatest private collection on the history, exploration and development of America, containing early books and manuscripts ranging over time from the voyages of Columbus to the settling of the last western frontiers.

Partly because of his own fondness and knowledge of the Elizabethan Age, Rosen­bach counted the nation’s two foremost Shakespearean collectors – Henry E. Hun­tington and Henry C. Folger­ – as both clients and friends. Although Huntington pur­chased a variety of materials from the Doctor, it was from Rosenbach’s rich Shakespear­ean offerings that the Califor­nian dipped the deepest. From the Marsden Perry Collection, he spent $21,000 on scarce volumes that once provided Shakespeare with plots and source material for his plays and, for $350,000, he bought the 1478 Dante first edition, Venus and Adonis. Drawing again from the Perry Collec­tion, the Doctor selected the Gwynne Quarto (named for the early collector whose name is stamped on the cover) as a must for his friend, Standard Oil executive Henry Folger. Printed in 1619, the volume was the only existing complete copy of the first attempt to publish a collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. “No price can be placed,” Rosenbach wrote regarding this “Finest Shakespearean Volume in Existence,” before settling on $128,000 for the quarto and several other almost equally “priceless” volumes.

The year 1922 heralded the first purchases of two impor­tant new local collectors. Less­ing Rosenwald, heir and east coast head of Sears, Roebuck, was to gather one of the great­est collections of illustrated books ever formed in America, while Victor Talking Machine Company president Eldridge Johnson later succeeded the doctor as the man who bought Alice in Wonderland.

Under the Doctor’s guid­ance, Rosenwald purchased four extremely rare early block books (some of the first books to use printed illustrations) and the beginnings of his incomparable collection of the strange and beautiful draw­ings and prints by artist-poet William Blake, whose work Rosenwald and the Doctor were among the first to cham­pion. To that tab of $404,700, Rosenwald added $297,000 to seize the opportunity to buy 26 remarkable examples of fifteenth and early sixteenth century book art. Still part of the Lessing Rosenwald Collec­tions, they are among the greatest treasures in the Li­brary of Congress and Na­tional Gallery of Art.

As a collector, Eldridge Johnson was a late bloomer who quickly made up for lost time after selling the Victor Talking Machine Company for a reputed $40,000,000 in 1927. After spending $255,000 with the Rosenbachs for Rembrandt prints and a painting, Johnson turned his gaze on Alice.

Amid much fanfare, Mrs. Hargreaves’ Christmas present from her doting admirer ar­rived in Philadelphia on May 31, 1928, in a specially built iron-bound trunk. Even Calvin Coolidge was eager to see the little book. Fascinated but hardly enlightened by the Doctor’s story of how copies of the first printing were sup­pressed because of Tenniel’s disappointment with the printer’s poor job of reproduc­ing his illustrations, the Presi­dent exclaimed, “Suppressed? I didn’t know there was any­thing off-color in Alice.”

Alice was toasted with bootleg champagne the eve­ning Johnson claimed his celebrated prize, together with two copies of the 1865 edition of Alice and a copy with some of Tenniel’s original drawings for a total of $149,882.29. The Doctor’s profit on the sale was $20,000 – and a million dollars worth of publicity.

With his collection of early American children’s books, the Doctor was proudly exploring uncharted terrain. Uncle Mo’s shop contained untouched copies of the early children’s books published by its original owner and these incredibly rare volumes gave the Doctor’s collection quite a send-off. “A young child’s attitude toward a book is not unlike that of a cannibal toward a missionary,” he wrote. “Very young children – this is on record, if you doubt me – have been known to eat their books, literally devouring their con­tents.” A number of the earliest American children’s books were printed in Philadelphia by William Bradford, Pennsyl­vania’s first printer, including an unpalatable little volume from the Doctor’s collection which may well have caused the colonial children who got past the title to rue the day they learned to read. Printed in 1717, A Legacy for Children, being Some of the Last Expres­sions and Dying Sayings of Han­nah Hill, Junr. of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania In America, aged Eleven Years and Near Three Months, consisted of Miss Hill’s interminable utterings of moral advice to every member of her family as she took an extraordinarily long time to expire.

Lessing Rosenwald, one of the greatest figures in the history of American book collecting, called his friend Rosenbach “the godfather of my collection,” describing him as “a mentor, a tempter, and a super salesman.” The Widen­ers and Bill Elkins, Hun­tington, Folger and the Doctor’s hundreds of other client-friends would have agreed, for much of his taste and scholarship is still re­flected in the libraries he helped them build. The Doc­tor’s death on July 1, 1952, and the passing, one by one, of these famous twentieth cen­tury bibliophiles marked the end of an era in book collect­ing. Most of the books and manuscripts Rosenbach bought and sold – many of the greatest of all time – will never be available to private collec­tors again. In his will, Rosen­bach’s close friend, drinking compatriot and fellow collec­tor, Frank Hogan, paid book collecting one of its most elo­quent tributes when he wrote, “There is something sacred in the spiritual and intimate companionship of a book and I do not deem it fitting that these friends of many happy hours should repose in un­loved and soulless captivity. Rather, I would send them out into the world again …”

Send them out into the world again … more and more Frank Hogan’s philosophy was echoed and reflected in the Doctor’s own activities throughout the last two dec­ades of his life.

A scholar himself, Rosen­bach appreciated the impor­tance of making source material available for study. At the great book auctions, scholars rooted for the Doctor because his willingness to open his shelves and vaults to them was as widely known as his fabulous purchases and sales. Continuing to maintain an active interest in the Folger Library after his friend’s death, Rosenbach sent some of his choicest books to the world’s greatest Shakespeare Library for a token payment and ar­ranged the donation of other purchases. Among his gifts to the Library of Congress was the only book believed to have survived the burning of the Congressional Library in 1814. Beneath the inscription inside its front cover, “Taken in Presi­dent’s room in the Capitol, at the destruction of that build­ing by the British, on capture of Washington, 24 August 1814 by Admiral Cockburn … ,” was added, “And now, this sixth day of January, 1940 after 120 years, restored to the Library of Congress by A.S.W. Rosen­bach.”

Tucked away in the nine­teenth century townhouse on tree-lined DeLancey Place where the Doctor and Philip lived and entertained is the little-known Rosenbach Mu­seum and Library, which still retains the atmosphere of an age when the great collectors lived among their treasures. Rosenbach curators like to joke that the Museum’s collections consist of everything Philip couldn’t sell and what the Doctor wouldn’t sell. Among the things Philip “couldn’t sell” are three floors of eight­eenth century English, French and American antiques, in­cluding noteworthy examples of Chippendale, Adam, and Hepplewhite furniture, as well as paintings by Canaletto, Sully and Lawrence, and drawings by Daumier, Fra­gonard and Blake.

The Rosenbach Library still contains more than 130,000 manuscripts and thirty thou­sand rare books documenting American history from the conquistadors to World War II, and British and American literature from the middle ages through the twentieth century. Adding to their intrinsic his­torical and literary value is the history behind the buying and selling of those items which were also souvenirs from fa­mous sales or from the li­braries of the collectors who had been friends.

Although the American Philosophical Society pur­chased most of the Benjamin Franklin items the Doctor pointed out, he couldn’t part with his copy of the first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanac, pub­lished in 1733. The Doctor’s favorite Franklin treasure, however, was the letter he sent to the lovely Madame Brillon, enclosing a spicy little baga­telle he called “The Story of the Whistle.” The Doctor’s handwritten manuscripts and personal letters of James Bos­well, Robert Burns, Shelley, Byron and Keats abound in dizzying profusion, as do important documents and letters from the founders of the nation. The Conrad manu­scripts that sold for such a high price and the manuscript of Ulysses that sold for so little are still at 2010 DeLancey Place for visitors to admire and study. One of the collection’s most popular items is a group of 32 pages of original manu­script leaves from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, among the rarest manuscript pages in existence because Dickens’ manuscript was thrown away as page by page, Pickwick was set into type. Uncle Mo would have been especially pleased to learn that among the books his nephew was never able to bring himself to sell was the precious book from George Washington’s library contain­ing three pamphlets on the Constitution.

Lewis Carroll’s own copy of the famous suppressed edition of Alice in Wonderland, with several of Sir John Tenniel’s original drawings, holds an honored place among the Rosenbach treasures. There is, however, one treasure visitors will look for in vain, the copy of Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s Alice.

Answering the British storm of protest when he first bought it in 1928, the Doctor offered to return it for his cost and even contributed the first donation towards its repur­chase. He found no takers.

On another April day in 1946, Alice was auctioned again by Eldridge Johnson’s heirs. With his friend Lessing Ro­senwald, the Doctor arranged to buy Alice as a gift for the Library of Congress to present to the British Museum as a postwar token of Anglo-­American solidarity and good­will. And so, once more Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach became the man who bought Alice in Won­derland, this time to send her home, back into the world again.

The End.


For Further Reading

Driver, Clive E., ed. A selection from our shelves: Books, man­uscripts and drawings from the Philip H. & A.S. W. Rosenbach Foundation Museum. Philadel­phia: Philip H. & A.5. W Rosen­bach Foundation, 1973.

Hunt, Kathleen. Rosenwald and Rosenbach: Two Philadelphia Bookmen. London: Constable & Company, Ltd., 1967.

Rosenbach, A.S.W. The Unpub­lishable Memoirs. New York: M. Kennerly, 1917.

Sowerby, E. Millicent. Rare People and Rare Books. Phila­delphia: Philip H. & A. S. W. Rosenbach Foundation, 1983.


Linda Kowall, a graduate of Bea­ver College, is a longtime Phila­delphia area resident and freelance writer. Her articles reflecting her special interest in the history of photography, cinema and popular culture have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ameri­can Film, Films in Review and numerous publications.