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Thursday, March 3, 2011

J.R. Osgood, the Harvard Book, and Dickensiana


Is there a connection between Osgood and The Harvard Book? Maybe. Not one of your more compelling bibliomysteries, but the correspondence below raises a few questions about the history of a particular book. The Dickensiana is no mystery. Read on...


Here is a nice postal cover with letterhead combo from Boston publisher J.R. Osgood. The company's logo and return address graphic, along with the 1875 postmark, provide a bit of company genealogy.


The oval image includes a book with J.R. Osgood & Co. printed on it. Beneath that we learn that Osgood either partnered with of succeeded Ticknor & Fields, as the previous name was Fields & Osgood, preceded by Ticknor & Fields. A descendant of the original Ticknor, whose book business started in 1832, took over J.R. Osgood & Co. and returned the Ticknor name to the business. I wrote about this in another post about a Ticknor & Company postal cover.

Osgood is writing to a Mr. F.O. Vaille in Cambridge, Massachusetts inquiring about a bond owed him. He gets right to the point: "Where is the bond you agreed to send me two weeks ago?"


A search for Vaille results mainly in articles related to a book he co-published in 1875 (same year as the letter from Osgood above): The Harvard Book  (Welch, Bigelow, and Company, Cambridge, 1875). The two-volume set consisted of historical, biographical, and descriptive sketches illustrated with heliotype plates and wood engravings. Adding to the aesthetics were leather bond and gold embossing. I wonder if Osgood might have been referring to the leather bond when inquiring about where the promised bonds were? And could this be evidence of Osgood's involvement initially with publishing The Harvard Book?  Perhaps Osgood started out as publisher, but conflicts arose between author and publisher and the job went to Welch, Bigelow, and Company.

Both the book and its author have fallen into obscurity. Osgood's books still pop up in old book shops and vintage ephemera related to the publisher surfaces occasionally. So the ephemera here is primarily significant for the history it conveys about a major publishing house in 19th century Boston in its evolution to the company today known as Houghton Mifflin. Any perceived mystery is for fun.

In researching J.R. Osgood, I found a legitimately fun item of literary history involving his role in an interesting piece of Dickensiana. In 1868, Osgood was a junior partner with Ticknor & Fields, Charles Dickens' American publisher. Dickens was in Boston to collect information about a murder case, the facts of which tied into a new novel he was undertaking at the time: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Two years later, Dickens would be dead and the novel unfinished.

While Dickens was in Boston, his reading tour manager, George Dolby, and Osgood somehow got involved in a walking race. Perhaps Dickens, an avid walker himself, originated the idea. What is certain, though, is that Dickens authored a folio size broadside about the race: The Great International Walking Match of Feb. 29, 1868.

According to Charles E. Goodspeed in Yankee Bookseller (Houghton Mifflin, 1937), only a few copies of the broadside were printed for guests at a dinner hosted by Dickens to celebrate the event. Goodspeed's book is where I initially learned of Osgood's involvement with Dickens and the race. The Charles Dickens Museum provided more information as well as an image of the rare broadside, shown below.

 Incidentally, Osgood won the race, edging out Dolby with some help from Annie Fields, who provided a shot of brandy in the last lap of a six-mile race on a cold, snowy day. (Victorian Boston Today)

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