By Kenneth Gloss
People who collect books are often ones who have a love of history. It is this appreciation for the past, of countries, events or of themselves, that compels them to begin their collection. Our country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, followed by the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s novel of the same name, inspired a many people to discover their own personal history. As people realized their family’s story was intertwined with that of the place they called home, historical associations received unprecedented donations, which allowed them to publish updated histories of local towns and regions. This fascination with the history of place continues strong today and for the most part, you can collect a lot of town history without spending a lot of money.
Town histories first began to appear around the turn of the 20th century. Most books from this time period fall within the $50 – $100 range, although it may be higher depending on who wrote it and which town it is about. Today, for those interested in getting info, much of what is in town histories is online so that some prices are not rising much or at all.
Most place histories compiled were suburban towns with relatively small populations, so the number of printed books is also smaller. Today’s urban sprawl has increased the population calling these towns home, making the number of people interested in these histories much greater than the number of books available. In the 1870s, large town and country atlases were produced, usually for insurance and real estate purposes. These atlases were very detailed, showing every street and the names of every property owner in each town. One can pinpoint where a person lived and get a good idea of what the neighborhood was like. If you collect a series of atlases from consecutive years, it’s possible to watch how one tract of land that began as a farm is methodically subdivided into single home plots and streets. These maps make great housewarming presents. You can give a homeowner an idea of what their property looked like 100 years ago or how their own town has progressed through the years.
Town histories are often a compilation of a broad range of data which all work together to fill in a picture of what it was like to live in that place during a particular time. Diaries can be of great value in this area. While some contain little more than notations of what the weather was like on a particular day, others can add vivid details to a local history. Most towns have some famous or prominent resident who kept a diary, but sometimes locating the diary of an ordinary person is really more helpful in getting a picture of daily life in that town. Average people live the common experiences of day-to-day life, while famous people are often caught up in bigger events, which don’t represent the reality of the general populace at the time. Financial records can also prove quite illuminating. Account books and tax records of different merchants, hotels and businesses can hold a lot of insight from what the prices of different items were at that time, to whom credit was extended and to whom not. Account books from professionals like the cobbler, blacksmith or doctor are the most interesting, because they are less common than account books from the general store.
When you start putting written histories and diaries and other records together you are getting a more complete history of a town than if you just rely on a single history book.
What can really set your collection apart and add value to it are photographs of the town. The most valuable photographs show the streets, houses and town gatherings. They show what buildings were there, how people dressed and what model cars were popular. Many times the real subject of a photograph is a person, but the town scene in the background is more interesting than what the photographer originally intended to capture. Family portraits are valuable in a historical sense only if the subjects are identified, for then they can provide a face to go with the names found in diaries or letters. Photographs run anywhere from $10 or $20 to a few hundred dollars and postcards sell between $1 and $5.
Many collectors discover that collecting the history of one town leads them right into collecting the history of towns that are nearby. Others begin collecting books related to historical figures from their town. Still others will become collectors of documents related to a particular industry that was important to the town, such as coalmines, oil refineries or steel mills. There is so much that contributes to the development of any given place that town histories can really lead into a lot of other fascinating and collectible areas.
The number of books available to a town history collector and the prices they bring will vary greatly depending on the town in question. Collectors focusing on Boston, for example, will find thousands of books to choose from, some of which cost a huge amount of money. Collecting histories of smaller towns will probably not be as expensive, but it may require more persistence to locate the resources you need.
As you search for books and other documents in large or small towns, you’ll often develop a relationship with the local historical society and librarians. These friendships are a nice bonus on top of anything you might find to add to your collection.
Collecting town histories, diaries and photographs is a wonderful way to discover the history of your family, your house, or your town. Whether your love of history leads you into book collecting or vice versa, town histories are absorbing, fun, and reasonably priced.
Kenneth Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop in the Downtown Crossing section of Boston, one of the country’s oldest and largest antiquarian book shops in the U.S. 2014 is the 65th year of Gloss family ownership. He has been seen often on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow as a guest appraiser. Further information is available on the store’s website at www.brattlebookshop.com where his free and open talks are listed. The shop is located at 9 Street. The toll-free number is 800-447-9595.