Updated: Dec 2, 2022
William G. Medlicott Image courtesy of Stephen Forbes
I love books. While I will, on occasion, read an e-book, I prefer the heft and physicality of a traditional, bound book. Our story today is about another book lover, William G. Medlicott, a Longmeadow resident who once had a private library estimated to contain 20,000 books. According to his 1883 obituary: “Far from being a bibliophilist in the passion for costly rarities for a market value, Mr. Medlicott loved his books for their own sake. He counted every moment he could snatch from business cares as golden for reading. It was his restful pastime and domestic recreation.” Like many people, I feel the same way.
William was born in Bristol, England in 1816. After finishing his formal education, he worked on a sailing ship for several years. A shipwreck on Rockaway Beach, Long Island when he was age 18 directed his focus to land-based employment and he started working in New York. His executive skills and business acumen enabled him to excel in business. In a few years, he was managing a manufacturing company in Thompsonville, Enfield; soon afterward, he established the Medlicott Company on the canal in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Medlicott Company manufactured full-bodied woolen knit underwear and other woolen knits. While just the thought of woolen underwear makes me itchy, the warm garments were highly valued by people who had to work outside in northern winters. The company was very successful; now wealthy, Mr. Medlicott was free to pursue his passions – reading and building his private library.
Medlicott Company Image courtesy of Stephen Forbes
Interested in learning about the earliest English literature, William initially collected works written in Anglo-Saxon. He taught himself to read Anglo-Saxon (aka, Old English) and he gathered one of the world’s most complete collections of books written in the language. His intellectual interests then expanded to books on Middle English, medieval French, early modern English, the Church of England, Bibles, ballads, songbooks, broadsides, and chapbooks. His library became so large that he needed to expand his Longmeadow home to accommodate all of the volumes.
William generously shared his library with scholars. In particular, his collection of Anglo-Saxon literature drew academics from around the country to Longmeadow to delve into its deep resources. According to a 1917 article,
“Often the professor, too, would go away with half a dozen or more of Mr. Medlicott’s rarest volumes packed in his trunk, for the scholar-business man was generous with his loans when the interests of knowledge were at stake. Indeed, some of his volumes acquired additional value through the annotations which the leading authorities of the nation wrote on the margins and the fly-leaves.”
While the archivists among us may be cringing at the thought of hand-written notes in a rare book, William especially treasured these annotated volumes. Scholars were quick to acknowledge Mr. Medlicott’s valuable assistance when they published their research.
Springfield Republican, June 20, 1870
In appreciation of his contributions to scholastic research, Williams College and Amherst College each honored William G. Medlicott with an honorary degree.
Christian Watchman, July 18, 1867
In 1876, Medlicott Company failed. The company quickly reorganized under different leadership but William G. Medlicott, a major investor, was financially impacted. Needing money, he decided to sell part of his library and he created a catalog of the part of his collection that he was willing to sell.
The archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society contain a copy of Mr. Medlicott's 1878 Catalogue of a Collection of Books. Printed by Rockwell and Churchill of Boston, the book measures 10” by 6” and runs for 380 pages. The pages are now very brittle and it is stored in an envelope to protect it from further decay.
Catalogue of a Collection of Books Longmeadow Historical Society archives
Almost 7,000 volumes are listed in the catalog, and they are organized into 3,667 lots. The oldest work listed in the catalog is a mounted and framed Egyptian papyrus dated c. 500 B.C. The catalog does not include prices – they were available upon request – but we know some of the prices from annotated copies of the catalog that exist in university and private collections. Even accounting for inflation, buyers paid a modest amount for these rare books.
Marketing of the sale began in mid-March, 1878. Advertisements such as the one shown below appeared in newspapers around the country. To scholars, William G. Medlicott was much better known for his library than for his stockinette company and interested parties wrote to Mr. Medlicott for additional information.
New Orleans The Times-Picayune May 18, 1878
In 1990, J.R. Hall thoroughly analyzed the collection of books and the distribution of William G. Medlicott’s library in an excellent scholarly article, “An American book collector and his collection” and I am indebted to J.R. for this research. Annotations on copies of the catalog document that portions of the library were sold to at least 52 libraries and private collections. Significant purchasers included university libraries such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Wellesley and public libraries in San Francisco, Boston, and Springfield. As J.R. Hall stated in the article (p. 46), “The disposition of Medlicott's library did not dramatically enrich a single institutional collection. Rather, it spread a wealth of resources among several, enriching each according to its special needs. For eleven decades the fruits of Medlicott's labor and catholic interests have served readers in anonymity.”
William G. Medlicott died in 1883. What happened to the remaining estimated 13,000 volumes in the Medlicott library? We are not sure, but we know that Mary Medlicott, William G.’s eldest daughter, coordinated further sales of the library collection after the initial sale. J.R. Hall was able to document several additional sales to Harvard. And we know that members of the family retained some of the collection. But, according to a 1917 account in the Springfield Republican, the library at the Medlicott house remained rich in scholarly resources. In 1917, the Medlicott family sold the family home in Longmeadow and they deaccessioned the remainder of the library through Goodspeed’s Bookshop in Boston.
Mary Medlicott Image courtesy of Stephen Forbes
In helping her father with his library, Mary Medlicott discovered her vocation. She trained at the Columbia Library school in New York under Melvil Dewey for two years; afterwards, she returned to Massachusetts and started to work at the Springfield City Library. Mary was imminently suited for one of her first assigned tasks at the library – the development of the research department. She continued to work at the Springfield City Library until shortly before her death in 1927.
Excerpt from “Miss Medlicott, Librarian, Dies at Age of 81” Springfield Republican, March 3, 1927
An electronic version of Mr. Medlicott's Catalogue of a Collection of Books is available for review on Internet Archives. But, you can also easily obtain your own bound volume of the catalog. Scholars still consider William G. Medlicott's catalog to be a culturally significant bibliography of early western literature and it has been reproduced several times. Today, you can buy these reproductions, in either hardcover or paperback form, through online bookstores.
“The Medlicott Library at Longmeadow,” Springfield Republican, May 3, 1878
“Death of William G. Medlicott,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 19, 1883
“Springfield’s Greatest Private Book Collection Passes On,” Springfield Republican, November 11, 1917
“Miss Medlicott, Librarian, Dies at Age of 81,” Springfield Republican, March 3, 1927
Hall, J. R. 1990. William G. Medlicott (1816-1883): An American book collector and his collection. Harvard Library Bulletin 1 (1), Spring 1990: 13-46. William G. Medlicott (1816-1883): An American book collector and his collection (harvard.edu)
Christian Watchman, July 18, 1867
Springfield Republican, June 20, 1870
Special thanks to Stephen Forbes
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member
Originally published April 14, 2022