While the collections of the New-York Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library contain many oddities acquired over a long period of time, none is, at first blush, stranger than our oldest printed book: a copy of the Moralia of Pope Gregory the Great, printed in Basel in 1496. Why strange? Because in collections shaped largely by Protestant families for whom the Pope was the Antichrist, and whose distaste for and suspicion of Catholics remained potent through the early 20th century, the presence of a volume like this makes little apparent sense.
However, its provenance is quickly revealed by an inscription pasted to the front fly leaf of the book:
Respectfully presented to his Honor, C. S. Woodhull, Mayor of New-York, for the City Free Library, as a very inadequate token of my heartfelt gratitude for the kind and generous hospitality with which the Government and People of this Splendid Metropolis have treated me, as the humble missionary of the System of Exchange and intellectual union of Nations, during my repeated visits to New York, while the guest of the United States of America. New York the 17 of December 1849. Alexandre Vattemare.”
The mayor, Caleb S. Woodhull, lacking a public library (the New York Public Library, as we know it today, did not yet exist), must in turn have given it to the New-York Historical Society as at least a large, working library of some note.
But who was Vattemare (1796-1864), and what is he referring to in the inscription? The short answer is something like: a talented, engaging person with reservoirs of curiosity; a school drop-out with a penchant for mischief making; and above all a skilled ventriloquist whose aptitude for duping people brought him international fame and a small fortune. He was also a tireless promoter of a scheme for tying libraries around the world together in a system of exchanges, thereby insuring the dissemination of knowledge and promoting international harmony. Vattemare dreamed up an “Agence centrale des échanges internationaux” [Central Agency for International Exchange], with himself as the Agent coordinating a system of book sharing between libraries across borders and oceans. He used his financial fortune to underwrite his dreams.
His special focus seemed to be on the United States, to which he made lobbying campaigns in 1839 and then again in 1847. His energies were concentrated on New England, New York, and the United States Congress. A tireless promoter and exquisite flatterer, Vattemare was able to evoke some interest within the states and in Congress. But his dreams were larger than the budgets of the participants and the results they generated, and so his efforts finally came up short. But not before several libraries in New York received volumes from the process, including Columbia University and the New-York Historical Society. The Moralia of Pope Gregory–properly known as Moralia, sive Expositio in Job (Commentary on Job), and sometimes called Magna Moralia (click here for an English translation)–bears the stamp “Systeme d’échange international.” How much Vattemare paid for it is not known, but it probably would not have been a terribly expensive book in the early 19th century.
Vattemare did have greater success with another library project. He helped plant the seeds that resulted in the Boston Public Library and is recognized in Boston as one of the library’s founders. So it turns out that the oldest book in our library is in itself part of a small but significant chapter in library history.
Vattemare’s papers are at the New York Public Library.
This post is by Michael Ryan, Vice President and Director of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.