Saturday, August 21, 2010

John Penington, Philadelphia bookseller

Carl Spitzweg's painting, Der Bücherwurm (The Bookworm), has been used by many booksellers to sell books and by many bibliophiles to decorate a library or reading room. My own library's walls are pretty much obstructed by tall bookcases, but the little wall space left for art includes a framed print of The Bookworm. So it came as no surprise to find an image of the famous painting on an old Philadelphia bookseller's trade card. What was somewhat surprising was the copyright date on the card: 1875.

I erroneously remembered The Bookworm was painted about that time and found it interesting that it had been adopted so quickly by a bookseller. I was off by 25 years, but 1875 may have still been early in the use of this image among bookmen. This is the earliest commercial use of it I have in my ephemera collection, anyway.

This trade card features a knock-off of Spitzweg's creation. The Penington name has been added and the section the old bibliophile is browsing is titled something like "Euonka." I can't tell what that is, but it is substituted for Spitzweg's "Metaphysik." The reverse side kicks off the proprietor's message with "Old, Rare and Quaint Books," followed by the the establishment's name and address. A description of their books and wants rounds out the information on the business side of the card, emphasizing various languages and European books. Their taste in foreign languages must account for the category of books in the image that I've yet to decipher. The descriptive message concludes with this incentive:
The most Fastidious Taste of the Erudite and Curious may be gratified in their "Rare, Old Book Shop."

It dawned on me, as I looked at the card, that a recent addition to my library might shed more light on this John Penington and his business history. I have a copy now of Forty Years Among the Old Booksellers of Philadelphia with Biographical and Bibliographical Remarks, by W. Brotherhead (published by A.P. Brotherhead, Philadelphia, 1891).

Penington is included in this history, but the author spells his name with a double "n." I'm going with the trade card spelling. I have to assume the card was done to Penington's specifications and approved before printing. I have also found some genealogical information to support that (included further down in this post).

Brotherhead comments briefly on John Penington's background, describing him of old Quaker stock, well-educated, a French scholar, and a collector of books, with particular taste in the belle lettres class of books. With his own substantial collection, he entered into business as a bookseller, opening his own book shop after a presumably unrewarding stint as a clerk in the Custom House.

At this point, I think the history behind Penington's book shop gets pretty interesting because of the clientele that called on the Philadelphia bookseller. They were primarily wealthy southerners, slaveholders of the plantation aristocracy.

Through his disdain for the history of slavery in America, Brotherhead reveals a thinly veiled opinion of southerners. But he finds a redeeming characteristic in the "literary Augustan age of the South:"
Let it be said to the credit of these men that they cultivated the hereditary literary instincts of their Anglo-Saxon forefathers. The money made from the work of these slaves was haughtily and grandly spent in educating their children in the best schools of Europe. The sons were trained for the various professions, and the most accomplished teacher that Europe could furnish were employed for their higher education. The results were that in proportion to their population, the Southerners produced a class of men, both in numbers and general culture, that far exceeded those in the Middle and Eastern States. The history of the country shows that, up to 1860, when the Rebellion broke out in its greatest Ferocity, the South, in both the Congress and the Senate, shows a greater galaxy of brilliant men than all the rest of the States combined. However censurable and questionable this mode of government may be considered by many, it cannot be denied that it produced a class of men always to be admired by the literary student, that we in the North have as yet to produce.
Brotherhead provides this history to establish the background of Penington's chief patrons. This cultivated Southern class always called on Penington, it seems, when on business in the east. Penington seems to have cornered the market on imported books from Europe, which, according to Brotherhead, the Southern literati craved.

When the Civil War (Rebellion) commenced, Penington lost a sizable portion of his customers and never recaptured the luster of the pre-War days. John Penington died in 1867, a few years after the war ended and the business passed to his son E. Penington (the copyright name on the trade card). As of Brotherhead's writing, 1891, the business had passed to the son of E. Penington. I can only assume the bookselling firm limped into the 20th century, a shadow of its former venerable-bookseller self.

Brotherhead laments the loss of the esteemed business that made Philadelphia the center for imported works of literature during the period 1800-1860. He claims New York booksellers began adopting the importation model for both literature and engravings and "robbed" Philadelphia of the noble reputation it once boasted.

I have to wonder how New York managed to recapture the market after the war and Philadelphia didn't. Beyond my limited knowledge of the history of the two cities and the factors involved in their literary development before and after the war, I would think it may have had something to do with the quality of Penington, the bookseller, and the lack of qualified successors in his city. I'll have to read the rest of Brotherhead's history of the old booksellers of Philadelphia to see if any clues turn up there. There seems to be something about New York after the war that cultivated more booksellers in the mold of John Penington.

Earlier, I alluded to the Penington genealogy. I learned form a Chester County Historical Society document on old families of Philadelphia that the Penington name was once spelled with two "n's," but had dropped one of them along the way. More importantly, I learned that John Penington came by his love of literature and book collecting rightfully.

His father, Edward Penington, "was possessed of literary tastes, and was the owner of a library comprising over 6000 volumes." John Penington was his oldest son and "had a national reputation as a scholar, antiquary and bibliophile. Upon his death, The Nation, eulogized him as "the last, if not the only American bookseller who represented the old traditional bookseller," and added this lofty assessment of his life:
A scholar of fine parts, thorough in his knowledge of bookselling, with judgement and skill, a biographer in its broadest and best sense he was an honor to the craft, and he took pride in it. He was a man of fine taste, of large reading, and of exhaustless service to all who were curious in scholarship or earnest in the study of letters... His shop became the gathering place of scholars and men with taste for letters, and one generation after another grew up almost under his eyes in the various branches of literature which he supplied…The trade of bookselling in his hands was elevated to the dignity that it really acquires in the hands of competent men. Such men are rare everywhere.
Brotherhead concluded his chapter on John Penington, stating that after his demise and uneventful succession of family owners of his business, Penington's name and by implication the literary reputation of Philadelphia booksellers also passed away:
...the halo of old John Pennington has passed away, and his fine old store and name, except to a few, is sunk into oblivion.
Perhaps the discovery of a 135-year-old trade card for the book shop has raised the memory of John Penington, Bookseller from the depths of oblivion, if only momentarily.


  1. Hello Chuck, The title above the section is in Greek - I think the word is 'eureka'. Nothing quite like finding that special book by serendipity... thank you for such a wonderful website by the way, I always look forward to your posts. Regards, Paul

  2. Hi Paul- Thanks for the help and comments on the site. I suspected Greek, among other languages, and checked alphabet charts to compare letters. I just couldn't find that third letter. "Eureka" makes a lot of sense for a bibliophile hunting for a book. If that's not the word, it should be! Thanks again!

  3. Nice story. I use 'the bookwurm' as a logo for my website and wrote a post to attend my readers on your beautiful tradecard + story about Penington.

    Greetings from Holland

  4. Thank you, Hans, for the comments and the link to the post. Glad you enjoyed the trade card--it is a beauty, despite the wear, with some interesting history behind it. When I started my first blog, I used this image, but dropped it eventually. I may have to incorporate this trade card into the banner.

  5. John Penington was a member of serveral generations of Penningtons to spell his name with one n. A Quaker, he was a descendant of Sir Isaac Penington, Puritan Lord Mayor of London, Isaac Penington the Quaker Divine, Edward Penington, brother-in-law of William Penn and a noted bookseller, scholar, antiquary and bibliophile. He was born in 1799 and died in 1867, son of Edward & Helena Lawrence Holmes Penington, both of whom were painted by Gilbert Stuart. The Reverend Jasper Green Pennington, Ypsilanti, Michigan

  6. Thanks for posting! I am so excited to find this. I am a descendent of John Penington and a bibliophile - let me know if you are ever willing to part with the card!

  7. And thank you for commenting. That's a nice connection to find. I guess books are in your DNA! I don't foresee parting with any of my collection for some time, but will let you know if I come across a duplicate or related piece. Contact info? Email me at chuckwhiting at gmail dot com.

  8. In going over my deceased husband's library I came across a book with many illustrations of Carl Spikweg's art:
    I think it may be a biography , written in German in 1917, by Hermann Udde-Bernays. Anyone have any information about the book?



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