Bibliotheca Americana : A dictionary of books relating to America, from its discovery to the present time. Begun by Joseph Sabin, continued by Wilberforce Eames and completed by R. W. G. Vail for the Bibliographical society of America

Laura Chilton is a Cataloger at the APS. Prior cataloging experience has been primarily in the areas of historical maps...

Daily work as a cataloger at the APS involves frequently consulting bibliographies for citation references. One fundamental source that I cite from is A Dictionary of Books Relating to America, from its Discovery to the Present Time (also known as Bibliotheca Americana) by Joseph Sabin. This 29 volume work, first published in 1867 and completed in 1936, is considered the all-time most important bibliography of literature pertaining to early American history. It is so important, in fact, that when a given publication is cited, it’s noted as either “In Sabin” with reference number or cited as “Not in Sabin.”

Who was “Sabin”? Although there is basic biographical information available, there remains quite a bit of mystery regarding his life.  

black and white print portrait of Sabin
 Portrait of Joseph Sabin

Joseph Sabin was born in 1821 in Braunston, Northamptonshire, England. After an unremarkable early education he apprenticed bookseller Charles Richards in Oxford to learn the skill of bookbinding. He quickly picked up sales experience as well and at age 21 became bookseller and auctioneer partner with his future wife’s brother, Mr. Winterborn. The business prospered and a few years later, in 1848, he and his wife decided to move to America. Their intent was to ‘set up shop’ in New York, though he also bought land in Texas, which he apparently never visited.  

After struggling to find work in New York, the Sabins decided to move along to Philadelphia. There, Sabin secured employment with George S. Appleton, a bookseller located at 148 Chestnut Street. It was in Appleton’s shop that Sabin introduced half binding in calf and morocco—a style of bookbinding that had never been used in America, though it soon became one of the most fashionable styles of bookbinding in the 19th century. After a few years spent in Philadelphia, he returned to New York in 1850 and continued to work for bookseller and auctioneer firms there. In 1856, while working for the firm of Bangs, Brother and Company, he was given the opportunity to catalog the Americana collection of Mr. E.B. Corwin. It was Sabin’s first experience cataloging an exclusive collection of Americana and was likely the impetus for creating his future Dictionary of Books relating to America.

For reasons unknown, he returned to Philadelphia the following year and opened a bookshop at no. 27 South Sixth Street—where Independence Mall is today. He did very well there until the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to lose his customers, who were mostly Southerners. He returned to New York once again in 1861 and opened an auction house on the corner of Fourth Street and Lafayette Place in Lower Manhattan under the name J. Sabin & Co.

After a few years of lackluster business, Sabin retired from the auction industry and went back to operating a bookstore at No. 84 Nassau Street. He remained there until 1879 when he retired from active business and devoted his days to completing the Dictionary. This description of the Dictionary taken from his New York Times obituary gives a solid idea of the comprehensive work involved: “In this work he gives a catalogue of every book, in every language, which relates to, or has the slightest reference to America. The books are arranged in alphabetical order, and in addition to the title, the substance of the book In its reference to America is given, the number of pages and plates, and the size of the book, with notes by Mr. Sabin, and if the work is very rare the reader is informed where it can be found. This stupendous work was begun in 1856, but the first volume was not published until 1867… Mr. Sabin was at work on the thirteenth when he died…”  Joseph Sabin died on June 5th, 1881.]

title page of A Dictionary of Books relating to America
The title page of A Dictionary of Books Relating to America, from its Discovery to the Present Time [016.97 Sa12 v.1+Q]

The work on the Dictionary was continued by a 26 year old bookseller named Wilberforce Eames. Eames worked steadily on it until 1894, citing that “other duties have hindered me from continuing the work…” It was not until 1924 that work resumed under the stewardship of the Bibliographical Society of America, with help from the American Library Association, the Carnegie Corporation, and contributions from friends, including Wilberforce Eames, now bibliographer of the New York Public Library. Following a few more financial setbacks, the Dictionary was finally completed in 1936, 80 years after Joseph Sabin first began collecting titles for it. Another 80 years later (and counting), Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America is still an authoritative and reliable source for early American bibliography to this day.

Title page with body text of An Examination of the Claims of Mr. Van Buren...
Title page of An Examination of the Claims of Mr. Van Buren and Gen. Harrison to the Support of the South…    [973 Pam. no. 959] along with corresponding Sabin reference no. 95536 [016.97 Sa12 v.1+Q]

 

Sources:

Vail, Robert W.G., “Sabin’s Dictionary.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 31, Part 1 (1937): 1-9.

Goff, Frederick R., “Joseph Sabin, Bibliographer (1821-1881).” Inter-American Review of Bibliography, Vol. 12, Nos. 1 & 2 (January-June, 1962): 39-53.

“Death of Joseph Sabin: Sketch of the Distinguished Bibliophile’s Career.” New York Times, June 6, 1881.

 

More from the blog

American Philosophical Society
American Philosophical Society
Alexandra Rospond