A Bubble Burst

I’ve mentioned Mosher’s copy of Bell’s British Theatre to a number of people from time to time. Bell’s is the set Mosher wrote about in his 1912 Mosher Books catalogue:

Yes, they do indeed arise before me as well! Most poignantly of all the set of Bell’s British Theatre1 bought by an indulgent father in the winter of 1866-67 when I crossed the Atlantic to meet him in Hamburg, and began a voyage which did not end until the late summer months of 1870. This particular collection bore the delicately written signature of an unchronicled and shadowy Jane Sonntag in each of its thirty-four volumes, unearthed in an old bookshop near the Elbe where, on a top shelf, it had awaited the coming of the small American who was then and there first made acquainted with Old Plays. The set comprised one hundred and forty distinct compositions ranging from tragedy, comedy and opera, to mask, (it opens with Milton’s Comus), and gave what must have been at the time–the dates are 1790 to 1799,–a popular reprint of “the most esteemed plays” ever brought together to delight the heart of any man or woman who loved Old English Comedy as it was then acted upon the living stage. One should not forget the earlier and more justly famous Dodsley’s Collection, but of this I was not aware, and so, speaking solely for my boyish self, it is to JOHN BELL, British Library, STRAND, that I can trace and owe my knowledge of Congreve, Cibber, Farquhar, Vanburgh, and even Wycherley! I wish it were within my limits or power to go into more explicit details of what this New World, which was the Old World of the Eighteenth Century reborn for my especial delight, has ever since meant to me. Other and later, perhaps wiser and better, book-loves have I met in the mid-forest of life, but when this is said, here and not elsewhere the magic key first became mine. With it I unlocked the gate and entered the enchanted garden of Literature. No one told me–no one guided me,–yet I heard the immortal Lityerses-song that once, and once only, is permitted the listening ear of Youth when Youth broods over all.

Did I find it? A copy of the 34 volume set appeared on the Internet in 2008. It was located in Maine and I contacted the owner asking numerous questions about it including whether or not it contained the famed signature of the “shadowy Jane Sonntag.” I knew the set offered for sale was an Ex Library copy, and asked him from which library? It was from the Portland Public Library in Portland, ME, and that meant, quite possibly, that it was Mosher’s set. It was partly bound in later library buckram, but there were also some volumes in 1/4 red morocco; however, the dealer wasn’t able to tell me if the morocco volumes were later rebindings. He didn’t see any signatures, but that didn’t fully disqualify the set in that rebound copies might have had the blank end pages excised in favor of new endpapers. Now if the 1/4 red morocco bindings were original, then I’d be pretty sure it wasn’t the Mosher set. Mosher mentioned that his copy was bound in full calf. But knowing that the set‘s volumes (1) were sort of dumpy when Mosher’s father bought them for him and therefore most likely in need of rebinding even back in 1912, that (2) later in Mosher’s lifetime he did donate certain sets from his library to at least one institution, and that (3) the set never appeared in the 1948 auction catalogues of his library, all these facts, when coupled with the fact that they were once at the Portland Public Library (I mean, what in the hell were they doing with a set with the exact dates unless they got it from Mosher) led me to think that this still might be THE set. I finally wrote to the owner in February 2009 after seeing it up for the past year.

Dear Sam:

Proposal: I see you still have the Bell’s British Theatre, 34 volumes. Of course we have corresponded many times about this and other material and I bought some Mosher material from you in the past over eBay.

Here’s what I’m asking. Might you be amenable to shipping the set here with invoice “on approval” so that I can take a very careful close look at it? It could be the set I’m looking for, although admittedly we sort of struck out in the past with my questions. It still bugs me however, and I still wonder if the set was tampered with when rebound at the library. There are some specific things I’d have to find in the set, some evidence, of prior ownership.

If you agree to send it, I would closely examine it, and if it truly is not the set I’m looking for, I’d send the set back expeditiously. No matter what, I’d cover your postage to send it down here, and if I return it I’d be responsible for the postage back to you. Otherwise, if I’d take it I’d pay you your asking price plus the postage to send it here. So… there you go. Let me know what you think about the idea.

Best wishes,

He would have none of this, writing back “Hi Phil: I don’t want to pack and send this set and then get it back. I’ll sell it to you for X. If it’s not the one, you sell it. Sam” OK, fair enough and I dropped the matter by not responding for months until it finally gnawed at me to the point I couldn’t stand it any longer. I surmised that if it is THE set, I’d be out of my mind with joy (especially after the long hunt), and even if it was not the set, he was offering it to me at 1/2 the previously agreed price. If not the set, then I’d at least have a representative sample of what Mosher was talking about, a place holder if you will, until I finally found the set. Almost three months later I wrote back on May 8th:

OK Sam, I’m going to take you up on your offer of $X + postage on the Bell’s British Theatre. [If indeed the set was still available.] How do we proceed? Can you send me an invoice by the Internet which I’ll complete so that you have payment? Would you rather I sent a check? Find out about postage costs.

At his request, I sent the check on May 11th and the set arrived at my post office box on Monday May 18th. The box remained unopened for the next week. I didn’t have the heart to see if it was or wasn’t, and as long as I didn’t thoroughly inspect it the possibility remained that it was the very set for which I’ve been searching for the past twenty years. I didn’t want to pop the dream-bubble, but I finally unboxed and opened the neatly wrapped individual volumes and lined them up–all 3 1/2 feet of them.

Until their unveiling on top of my library table nobody knew I had gotten them because they were stashed under table, but it was hard to disguise 3 1/2 feet of books once on top of the table. Still they set there for another three days until I finally sighed and opened the first volume to begin the tedious task of going page by page through each of the 34 volumes and inspecting the joints of the volumes in red 1/4 leather bindings. I have other information through Mosher’s letters and manuscripts further divulging certain details about the interior of the volumes, so I was hunting for those signs as well. By the time I had gotten to the 20th volume I was all but sure that this was not THE set which also carried what may be the acquisition date of 1918 written by a librarian along with some other codes. Volume number 33 down, and then I proceeded to the 34th volume. All hope was gone and at the close of the last volume I sat back and recognized that this was not Mosher’s copy of the set even though I dearly wished it to be. So OK, I used the fall back line of reasoning, my second best reason for acquiring it, that being that at least I’d have a copy of the same kind of set which Mosher read while onboard ship with his father and family from 1867-1870, and I got it at a minimal price. This will have to do for now and the quest continues. “Ah well… such is life” he says with a sigh. Now where do I store thirty-four more volumes?

©Philip R. Bishop
June 5, 2009

This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 2009 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.


  1. Bell’s British Theatre. A collection of the most celebrated Comedies and Dramas, with about 120 fine Portraits of Actors in Character. Complete set, 34 vols., 18mo. Calf. London, 1792.–BOOKSELLERS’ CATALOGUE.