Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: January 1979 Volume 17 Number 1, Pages 13–20

When One of America's Leading Book Collectors Lived in Daylesford

Bob Goshorn

Page 13

The knoll is still there, and so are the chestnut oaks, some of them now eighty feet tall or more, but all that remains of "Oak Knoll" are some concrete pillars at the end of the driveway, a stone chimney, and the stone floor and columns of a terrace.

"Oak Knoll" was for forty-four years, except for a brief period during the first World War when the "house in the country" was closed for economy, the home of A. Edward Newton. Newton was described by Archibald MacLeish, poet and Librarian of Congress, as "long the most famous and most influential of American book collectors", while William Targ, in 1955, observed in his Bouillabaise for Bibliophiles that "Newton, singlehandedly, did more to infect the modern reader with the book-collecting fever than any other man of our time".

His collection of manuscripts, first editions, presentation and associa­tion copies and other rare treasures at "Oak Knoll" comprised several thousand volumes: "When I owned a few hundred books," he himself commented in his This Book-Collecting Game. "I referred to it largely as 'my library'; now that I have eight or ten thousand volumes, I know it is not a library: it is merely a collection of books."

Alfred Edward Newton was not only a book collector, but an author as well, his books generally collections of essays about his love of books and book collecting, and often autobiographical in character.

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Among them are The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections (1918), A Magnificant Farce and Other Diversions of a Book Collector (1921), The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers (1925), This Book-Collecting Game (1928), End Papers (1933), A Tourist in Spite of Him­self (1933). and Derby Day and Other Adventures (1934).

He was born on August 26, 1863 in Philadelphia, the son of Alfred Whar­ton and Lois Swift Newton. Of his childhood, he observed in A Magnificent Farce, "I don't think that I was a very bad little boy, as boys go, but the fact is that I ran away from school — a boarding school — and never went back." He also commented that he really "never had any education, whereas it is commonly supposed that I have sat, or at least stood, at the knee of some great scholar like Kittredge. The fact is that kindly disposed relatives took me in hand at an early age and sent me from one dame — I almost said damn — school to another, according to the views of the one who had me in charge for the time being. This is a bad plan."

His first job was with the Public Ledger, then owned by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, addressing envelopes. From there he went to Porter & Coates, one of Philadelphia's leading book stores (one of the partners, incidentally, was Henry Coates of Berwyn) where he worked as a sales clerk, but in the stationery rather than the book department. "I suppose," he later suggested, "it was early discovered that, though I might take a customer's money, I would never part with the books."

After leaving Porter & Coates, Newton worked for the banking firm of Brown Brothers & Co., where he drew bills of exchange in sets of three, "the unhappiest time" of his life. "I soon became expert enough to make three separate blunders in a single bill," he recalled. "Reflection told me that I was not only in the wrong pew, but in the wrong church as well: I determined to throw up my job and go into business for myself: to do in a wholesale way what I had done at retail."

After several years he then joined Cutter, Inc., an electrical manufacturing company, of which he later became president "without knowing a volt from an ampere, or a kilowatt from either", as he observed in A Magnificent Farce, and with whom he remained until his resignation and retirement in 1931.

In the meantime, at the age of 18 he had started his first library and book collection. His first purchase was in 1882, at Leary's, a secondhand book store and for many years a Philadelphia institution: Pope's Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey in "two volumes, Bonn's edition, in faded green cloth". "I read them with delight," he reported in The Amenities of Book-Collecting, "and was sorry when I learned that Pope is by no means Homer." Two years later, Newton went to London for the first time — "the London of Dickens" — and there "fell under the lure of Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb, After that, the deluge ... My love for book-collecting and my love for London," he observed, "have gone hand in hand. From the first, London with its wealth of literary and historic interest has held me."

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But fourteen years later, on May 6, 1896, he had to sell a part of his collection — to build "Oak Knoll".

"Years passed," Newtom reminisced in This Book-Collecting Game. "I bought what books I could; finally got married [to Babette Edelheim in April 1890], bought a home, had children, and came to feel the need of some sort of place in the country for the summer months. It seemed, at the moment, more important to have a place in the country than to have a few hundred first editions, and as it was perfectly clear to me that I could not have both, I decided to part with some of my books... I decided to sell at auction in New York, and — to save money — to make and print the catalog myself... There were in all two hundred and forty-six items."

The sale netted about $2700, enough to build "the cottage in the country [at Daylesford] in which I still live," he commented in This Book-Collecting Game in 1928, "with such more substantial additions as I have been able to make as I got a lead on the sheriff." "Oak Knoll" eventually included not only residences for the family, but, at the rear of the property, a long low combination of stables and sleeping quarters for servants. He also had three other small cottages built, one of which was used for a kennel, though Newton himself detested dogs. (Despite his dislike of dogs, however, one of the first demonstrations of the seeing-eye dog was held at his home in Daylesford.)

One of the features of "Oak Knoll" after its "substantial additions" were its four dining rooms: one in the basement, with a stone floor, vaults, an extensive wine cellar, and furniture from John Murray, the English publisher; a second, and probably the most used, a conservatory which included in its decor a Sicilian donkey cart; one the formal dining room, with large mirrors, mahogany paneling, and the sterling silver; and the fourth an informal "American kitchen", with pine paneling and cupboards, a Kentucky rifle (the gift of a neighbor) hanging on the wall. Along one side of the house was a long, narrow hall, with the original sitting room, cloak rooms, and the library on the left, the dining rooms behind the library.

Newton also reported that he made the mistakes "that a city man always makes when finally, for good and all, he transfers himself to the coun­try", raising "everything that could be raised — in adversity" and growing "everything that refused to grow, until with increases of for­tune we discovered that only the rich can afford to milk their own cows and grow their own vegetables".

But after twenty-five years, he also wrote, in A Magnificent Farce: "With Daylesford in Pennsylvania I am much at home. Life in our little hamlet is not unduly stimulating. Such local happenings as occasion­ally find their way into the newspapers are generally occasioned by a sharp and dangerous turn in the much traveled Lancaster Pike, an old post-road now taking the greater name of the Lincoln Highway... Not all automobilists know this turn, and two or more of them trying to occupy the same space at the same time afford all the excitement we seem to require. Twenty-five years' residence has made few changes other than that, speaking to our trees and to our children, we can truthfully say 'How you have grown!'"

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Notwithstanding the lack of undue stimulation, the cosmopolitan New­tons — who were equally at home in Philadelphia or London — took quite an active interest in the community life of Daylesford.

For many years, for example, the Newtons gave a Christmas party for the neighborhood children, with marionettes and puppets and small gifts, one year replicas of colonial horn books. And in appreciation for being included in the rounds of the annual informal Christmas caroling in the neighborhood, Newton presented the carolers a Thames piano", a small piano without legs, that could sit flat on the barges on the Thames River in London; it was put on the back of a station wagon and used to accompany the singers each year.

The Newton's annual Christmas card, traditionally a small monograph in a little "blue book", was also highly prized by its recipients.

Mr. and Mrs. Newton were also subscribers to a summer newspaper pub­lished by the children of one of the neighbors. When it was deli­vered to them during a newspaper strike in Philadelphia, "A.E.N." wrote a two-page long-hand letter "To the Children of Daylesford", expressing his pleasure that "the 'Daylesford Weekly', that admirable sheet giving the really worthwhile news, was delivered on time". The Newtons also attended the "shows" staged by the neighborhood children during the summer.

With a few selected friends, Newton also organized the Hen-Pecked Hus­bands Club, which met "mainly in the summer while the wives were away". The club's insigne was a plaid apron, over which was a flat iron and a rolling pin, with the letters "HPHC" on the apron and the motto "My Wife Won't Let Me" on the apron strings.

Newton also developed quite an interest in the English home of Warren Hastings, one-time Governor General of India, for which Daylesford was named. Newton explained, in A Magnificent Farce, that it was "for the reason that he was the hero of an old man who once lived in these parts and who was given the privilege of naming the little shed and platform which have served for a station". In fact, Newton also not only studied the life of Hastings, his trial for treason and acquittal (from which the title of his book A Magnificent Farce is derived), but also collected memorabilia concerning him "the existence of which would have surprised and pleased the great man, portraits, documents, setters formal and letters friendly, cards of admittance" to the trial, and even, after a considerable search far it, a mezzotint of a view of the "tryal before the Court of Peers at Westminster Hall, for which he paid only three pounds.

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Mrs. Newton walked to Berwyn every day, frequently wearing a broad, bright red sailor hat, while Mr. Newton's flamboyant black and white checkered suit, together with his Picadilly collar and bow tie, were almost a trademark. (Frederick Pottle, professor of English at Yale, suggested in his introduction to one of the Newton sale catalogs that "his whole get-up was deliberate, a literary tourde force which no one relished more than its author".)

Pottle also observed that Newton "loved gossip and scandal, but was charitable and loyal and ... he never, so far as I could see, cherished spite or malice". He also described him as a "courteous" host, but at the same time, it is also reported that Newton had no compunctions about embarrassing a guest on occasion, if it suited his mood. Babette New­ton was also a warm and witty hostess, and often served as a foil for her husband.

Living in the country, though, was not without some difficulties. "If one elects to live well out in the country," Newton observed in A Magni­ficent Farce, "going to the opera presents serious difficulties." At the same time, however, he also pointed out that "I shall not, I think, be accused of misstatement when I say that it is altogether probable that most married men, if they could be excused from escorting their wives to the opera, would cheerfully make a substantial contribution to any worthy — or even unworthy — charity."

In addition to his book collecting activities, Newton was also one of the founders of the Tredyffrin Country Club, located between Daylesford and Paoli, and was its first president. But "when it was discovered that I did not know the difference between a foursome and a brassie," he acknowledged in The Greatest Book in the World, "and that the nineteenth hole was the only one I could put a ball into, I was given the choice between resignation and expulsion".

But books and book collecting were his real interest. "Books interest me enormously," he confessed in A Magnificent Farce, "they always have. They are the best of friends, — grave or gay as your humor is, — and you can shut them up when you want to... Now, next to a modicum of food and a patch of clothes, I care more for books than for anything else."

Of book collecting, he wrote in The Amenities of Book-Collecting. "Book collectors are constantly being ridiculed by scholars for the pains they take and the money they spend on first editions of their favorite authors; and it must be that they smart under the criticism, for they are always explaining, and attempting rather foolishly to justify their po­sition. Would it not be better to say, as Leslie Stephens did of Dr. Johnson's rough sayings, that 'it is quite useless to defend them to anyone who cannot enjoy them without defense?'"

Nonetheless, throughout his books Newton offers at least a brief, if not a defense, for book collecting. In This Book-Collecting Game, he noted that "the by-product of book-collecting is FRIENDS".

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To the library at "Oak Knoll" came the literary greats of many nations, in­cluding Thomas Mann, Amy Lowell, Christopher Morley (a close friend) and other notables, as well as other collectors and students. "I some­times think," he further observed, "that the best part of book-collecting is the delightful acquaintances one makes, and when acquaintances be­come friends and visits and letters and experiences are exchanged, one feels the joy of life. And more: if we play the book-collecting game with any skill, we come to know a good deal about some one thing and something about a good many things, and this goes to make what is called an educated man — and we have none too many of them. Anything that enlarges one's horizons is good, and reading does..."

He also pointed out that "anybody with ordinary intelligence" can be a book collector, with the additional observation that "there are, indeed, people who think that it takes no brains at all; their opinion may be ignored", Farther, he added, "No great amount of money is required, unless one becomes very ambitious".

At the same time, however, he cautioned against sacrificing quality for price. "A good resolution," he advised, "is never to be satisfied with a poor copy of a book at any price; a superlatively fine copy of a great book is always cheap,"

"Stick to first editions," he suggested in This Book-Collecting Game, "don't be afraid to pay a good price, a high price, for a fine copy of any important book, but be sure that it is important. The better the book, the higher the price, the better the bargain. And a good rule for a beginner is to read every book he buys: this will slow down his purchases somewhat, but will make him a better collector in the end. Books are intended to be read; the collecting of them is only an incident in their lives as it is in ours."

But the collector can also find bargains: "Most profitable of all for the buyer," he noted in The Amenities of Book-Collecting, "are the sales where furniture, pictures, and rugs are disposed of, with, finally, a few books knocked down by one who knows nothing of their value. Many are the volumes in my library which have been picked up on such occasions for a very few dollars, and which are worth infinitely more than I paid for them." On the other hand, of auctions he warned that "the spirit of competition invariably leads me astray, and I never come away without finding myself the owner of at least one book, usually a large one, which should properly be entitled, 'What Will He Do With It?'".

His method of collecting was obviously not simply to go to just one or two antiquarian booksellers, a practice he likened to hunting while sitting in an easy chair with the game shooed to within easy range of the gun. Newton's collection, instead, was built by "'watchful waiting', in season and out, in places likely and unlikely", to which he added "most of all in London", where he was frequently seen wandering from bookshop to bookshop in search of an exceptional, rare edition or other addition to his collection.

Page 19

In this way he amassed his collection, paying as much as $62,000 for the famous Earl of Campfort copy of the first folio of Shakespeare. But at the same time, he acknowledged in This Book-Collecting Game, "Many collectors have flown higher than I, but none have had a more modest beginning. I own today, and value highly, books which cost me fifteen cents, and I well remember when the expenditure of a dollar for a book seemed like extravagance." Incidentally, Mrs. Newton shared in his collecting activities, as he acknowledged in the dedication of The Amenities of Book-Collecting, in which he also observed, "When I am going to be extravagant, I always like the encouragement of my wife, and I usually get it."

The collection at "Oak Knoll" included, in addition to the Shakespeare first folio, also the second, third and fourth folios of Shakespeare; the original parts of Dickens' Pickwick Papers and Thackeray's Vanity Fair; a first edition of Omar Khayyam, in the original wrappers; a first edition of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe; an extensive collection of the poems of William Blake and, in the "Murray" dining room, a collection of his water color drawings; the original manuscript map of Treasure Island, drawn by Robert Louis Stevenson; and several early Bibles. There was also the manuscript of Charles Lamb's Dream Children and the manuscript of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, for which Hardy rewrote one page that had been lost from the original.

The collection also included presentation copies of works by, among others, Barrie, Browning, and Byron; Lewis Carroll; Dickens, Eliot, Galsworthy and Goldsmith; Hardy, Lamb, Poe and Shaw; Swinburne, Tennyson, Thackeray; Trollope, Whitman, and Wilde.

An original and unexpurgated first edition of Boswell's Johnson, one of only two copies known to exist with the uncancelled leaf, was in his collection, as was an extensive collection of the works of Dr. Johnson. In fact, Newton was so well recognized as an authority on Samuel Johnson that he was the first American to be elected president of the Johnson Society of Great Britain. Also at "Oak Knoll" was a superb portrait of Johnson by Reynolds, together with a companion portrait of Boswell on the opposite wall, and a silver tea pot once owned by Dr. Johnson, which he had bought at the urging of Cornelia Otis Skinner after having previously decided against its purchase — and for twice as much as he could have bought it for the first time!

During the last few years of his life, A. Edward Newton suffered terribly from cancer. In a note with his Christmas "blue book" in 1938 he wrote, "When I am asked how I am, I reply in the words of the booksellers' catalogs, as quoted by Kit Morley, 'in good second-hand condition.'" But on another occasion, he commented, "I feel as though I have been riding bareback on a camel. They say a gentleman is never ill. I am not a gentleman."

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He died on September 29, 1940, his family and a few friends, including Christopher Morley, at his bedside. Private funeral services were held at "Oak Knoll" and he was buried in the Valley Forge Memorial Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone is taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, / And our little life / Is rounded with a sleep."

The following year, his collection was offered for sale at auction at the Parke-Bemet Galleries in New York, the sale being held in three parts to accommodate the wealth of material. The sale was Newton's wish, that the various items once again be put into circulation so that other bibliophiles might also experience the joy and excitement he had felt when he acquired them. "I cannot escape the conviction," he wrote and was quoted by his son in the catalog for the sale, "that Edmond de Goncourt was right when he said in his will: — 'My wish is that my drawings, my prints, my curiosities, my books — in a word those things of art which have been the joy of my life — shall not be consigned to the cold tomb of a museum, and subjected to the stupid glance of the careless passer-by; but I require that they shall all be dispersed under the hammer of the auctioneer, so that the pleasure which the acquiring of each one of them has given me shall be given again, in each case, to some inheritor of my own tastes.'"

With the famous collection thus disposed of, "Oak Knoll" was torn down, leaving only a few remnants and the concrete pillars at the end of the driveway. The pillars, incidentally, never were quite plumb, a fact, Newton reported in The Greatest Book in the World, that "has been called to the attention of the owner many times; the explanation is that they were erected, in his absence, by several colored brothers who had been defying successfully the provisions of Mr. Volstead's Act".

But nonetheless they are just about the only reminders of when one of America's leading book collectors lived in Daylesford.



Books by A. Edward Newton cited

Oral interviews with Mrs. Louise Kneass

Clippings from The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

Catalogs of sales at the Parke-Bernet Galleries


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