Mixed up in the notorious Gilded Age dichotomy of incredible displays of wealth and extreme poverty, were extraordinary achievements in design and art, many of which reveal exceptional artisanship. This is especially evidenced in a recently donated memorial volume marking the death of merchant and real estate magnate, John David Wolfe, in 1872.
Like many contemporaries, Wolfe amassed an impressive fortune in his lifetime, initially from his hardware business, Wolfe & Bishop, and augmented through prudent real estate investing. Paired with the estate of his wife Dorothea Ann, heiress to the Lorillard tobacco fortune, Wolfe’s fortune was some $12,000,000 upon his death. As the sole living heir, his 44-year old daughter, Catharine, thus inherited the rough equivalent of $260 million in today’s dollars.
John David had given considerably to New York educational, religious and cultural organizations, as well as helping to found the American Museum of Natural History. Closer to home, he was a “warmly attached” member of the New-York Historical Society, and helped fund multiple important acquisitions before his death.
Although educated and well-travelled, according to sources, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe had led a quieter life after the 1866 death of her mother. But upon receiving her inheritance, she took up the mantle of charitable giving initiated by her parents.
Catharine subsequently established her own significant philanthropic legacy. Among entities she supported were the Newsboy’s Lodging House, Union College, Grace Church, and St. Luke’s Hospital. Arguably her standout contribution though came on her own death, in 1887, when she left her art collection, then valued at nearly a million dollars, along with a critical $200,000 endowment, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Such is the context of this beautifully crafted volume which rests in an imposing dark wooden box, the exterior of which bears stylized carvings, while its interior is a striking plush red. A colleague has identified the ensemble as Modern Gothic, a subset of the burgeoning Aesthetic movement popular in the 1860s and 1870s.
The volume itself holds an array of documents, including photos of Wolfe and Dorothea Ann, condolence letters, an obituary, as well as minutes, resolutions and addresses on the occasion of his death recorded by numerous organizations that he supported (including the New-York Historical Society). Clerics also figure prominently, reflecting where Wolfe devoted much of his philanthropy.
Still, its most outstanding element is the volume’s pristine binding, an eye-catching red leather contrasted with a bold black lettering, and a hint of gold tooled ornaments. Especially intriguing are the gold-stamped words on the upper board “BOUND BY MATTHEWS.” Ordinarily, the surname alone may seem frustratingly generic, but fortunately, this can only be one man: bookbinder William Matthews.
A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Matthews immigrated to the United States in 1843, having served an apprenticeship at the influential London firm of Remnant & Edmonds. By 1846, he had established his own business until joining D. Appleton & Co. to run its bindery in 1854, a position he continued in until 1890.
After Matthews’ death, in 1896, it was suggested that his bindings in the intervening period were for “the accommodation of a few of his book-loving friends.” This may explain French bibliophile Octave Uzanne’s zestful take: “America rejoices in having Matthews, whom New-Yorkers consider to be a demi-god and whom they shower with hundreds of dollars when he deigns to adorn a fine edition with brown or red morocco.”
Surely Uzanne’s haughtiness was in overdrive but a Matthews binding was, indeed, no cheap expenditure. The bill shown here attests to that; sixty dollars in 1876 is now nearly $1,500. The cost may be indicative of Matthews’ stature as an artisan, as well as the prevailing opulence of the day.
Whatever the nature of his fine binding work after 1854, Matthews profoundly impacted fine binding in America. As noted book collector William Loring Andrews phrased it “The credit for having raised bibliopegy [the art of bookbinding] in the United States permanently to a fine art belongs indisputably to William Matthews.”
Still, perhaps signaling a man who appreciated the finest details of his craft over ostentation, Matthews once wrote that “a book, when neatly and cleanly covered, is in a very satisfactory condition without finishing or decorating.”
Ultimately what intrigues about this volume isn’t exclusively that it’s a Matthews binding, or who John David Wolfe was, or that Catharine Lorillard Wolfe would have a lasting effect on the city’s religious, educational and cultural institutions. Instead, it’s all of these elements, and others, that form a remarkable cross-section of elements that define the Gilded Age, making it uniquely representative of its era.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.