What Was in Rufus King’s Library?

From Edward Hale Brush's _Rufus King and His Times_ (1926).  This might be from the 1860s when King's son John Alsop King lived in the house with the books.  It is unclear if this was really King's favorite arm chair.

From Edward Hale Brush’s _Rufus King and His Times_ (1926). This might be from the 1860s when King’s son John Alsop King lived in the house with the books. It is unclear if this was really King’s favorite arm chair.

When writing my dissertation on Rufus King‘s reading history, I hoped to have a large section on his library space in Jamaica, Long Island (now Jamaica, Queens).  King lived in the home from 1806 to his death in 1827.  In the end I didn’t have time or space to write about it, so I want to rectify that glaring oversight here.

King returned from London, where he was the American Minister Plenipotentiary, in 1803 and lived in several homes until discovering the Jamaica property in 1805.  The house and the roughly 60 acres around it had been owned by a merchant named Christopher Smith, who owed King several thousand dollars.  Upon Smith’s death, King bought the house and the debt was subtracted from the buying price of 12,000 dollars.  He made substantial improvements in the house from 1806-1810, adding a second kitchen, a large dining room with an oval end, and two extra bedrooms.  In addition he did much to improve the property and built many new outbuildings.  While the space for the library existed in 1805, King made changes to it to accommodate his thousands of books.  While it’s hard to accurately say how many books he had in 1806, it could be in the 2,000-2,500 volume range, plus an immense map library.  What we can say is that in 1809 he estimated the value of his “Books, plate furniture &c” at $20,000.  At the end of his life, he had 3,715 volumes.  About 200 of them were Sammelbände containing thousands of pamphlets, organized by topic and date.

Author photo of library at King Manor Museum.  These books are only there for show.  RK's books are at the New-York Historical Society.

Author photo of library at King Manor Museum. These books are only there for show. RK’s books are at the New-York Historical Society.

King had five floor to ceiling custom-made book shelves with over 5,100 inches of shelf space. (Today there are only four in the library — the fifth was removed to give access to a window that was covered.  When King was alive, the outhouse was right outside the library and blocking this window might have been beneficial).  These shelves contained an ingenious system where each level of shelving used two slats of wood roughly an inch apart from each other.  The lower slat was connected to the side of the shelf a few inches forward, while the higher slat connected a few inches back.  This allowed for taller quartos and octavos to be placed on the high slat and smaller octavos and duodecimos on the lower shelf and still allow the spine label to be read.  In addition, each floor-to-ceiling shelf contained two drawers at floor level to hold maps and possibly wooden letterboxes for King’s personal papers (one letterbox is in the King Manor Museum collections).  King added locks to secure the doors to each shelving unit, and placed curtains over the glass windows to protect the books from dust and sunlight.

Notes of my measurements of the King library on 7/4/2009.

Notes of my measurements of the King library on 7/4/2009.

In terms of furniture, we do have some sense of what was in the library from a document listing goods sold to King’s oldest son John Alsop King, who also lived in Jamaica, in 1819.  The list is roughly broken down by room and it seems that the library contained “1 Library Table,” “1 Lounging Chair,” “2 Globes,” “1 Mahogany Wash Stand & Basin” (this seems out of place), “1 square Mahogany Table,” “1 Fire Fender of Wire,” and “1 Large Sized Telescope” (King Family Papers, N-YHS, Folder 1810-1819).

Furthermore, King’s great-granddaughter, Eliza Gracie Suydam, published a pamphlet (A Descendant of Kings, 1941) on the reminiscences of her childhood.  This pamphlet also includes stories that her mother, Eliza Gracie King, told.  At one point in the pamphlet, Eliza Gracie King reported an instance when she was caught in a moment of tomfoolery and had to face Rufus, “seated as usual in his brown leather armchair in his library” (20).  Also, she reported that the grandchildren had to repeat their catechism to him while he sat in that chair.  In addition to religious material, she noted that, “[m]any a poem did I recite in that same room, for young girls were required to improve their minds on all occasions” (20).  Eliza Gracie King notes that Rufus kept a “large leather-covered desk,” in the hall, presumably near the library.  On it were busts of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  I wonder if King might have kept this desk in the hall to conduct business with the various towns people of Jamaica and still preserve the sanctity of his private library space.

There was at least one desk in the library, and it was specially designed to examine maps. King ultimately sold his map collection to the federal government in September 1818 (these could not be found at the Library of Congress, West Point, or in any other military library I contacted), but he wrote an extraordinary letter to Secretary of War William Crawford on 29 September 1816 describing the collection:

“While abroad I took some pains, (by ascertaining from the members of the Corps diplomatique at London the best maps of their respective Countries, and employing Mr. Faden to procure them) to make what I esteem a valuable and extensive Collection of Maps & Charts. As your department in a more especial manner should be well provided with these things, I have thought that I might furnish a desirable addition to your Collection by offering mine. They are in perfect order & condition, and consist of about 450 sheets; they are not bound in Vols., but arranged in four large Cases, in the form & bound as large folio Vols—a manner deemed the safest for preservation, & most convenient for consultation. These Cases are placed in a Mahogany Desk, 3 feet 3 inches wide by 2 feet 3 deep, and nearly 4 feet high, with a Top, which by being raised by rack work in the back affords an inclined plane, on which to place the Maps for examination.
If the Collection should be desired by you, I will sell it for what it cost me, and would moreover furnish your department with a perfect Copy in two very large Folio Vols. bound in Russia leather, of the Atlantic Neptune, being the Charts & Views of the Survey of the Amer. Coasts & Harbours from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico, made by order of the Eng. admiralty immediately preceding our revolution. This work is not to be bought, unless young DeBarnes, who has secured the Plates, has retouched them and thrown off another portion. For a large proportion, especially the Northern portions of our Coast, this Survey is invaluable, and so accurate as almost to supersede future Surveys.” (Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Vol. 6, p. 30).

Toward the the end of his life, in October 1826, King complained in a journal that his son James would not send a “writing desk” from Manhattan.  The desk apparently held important notebooks and papers and when it finally arrived, King recorded:

 “The Desk from James, came last night, by the Boys, who returned to School but I have not examined it to ascertain whether it contained the Articles I want. As yet the request[ed] Examination, remains to be made: I am inable [sic] ascertain whether the whole Documents that were in my writing Desk are sent: – on an imperfect Examination, I fear that they are defective: especially as I cannot find the Papers, including my small Pocket Books, which were in my writing Desk – I do not yet find the Pocket books and my search is imperfect; or they are wanting – The latter is I fear the case: but I must search further; tho it seems strange that I do not meet with them.” (Erving-King Papers, N-YHS, Box 24, Folder K5A).

There is also some debate at the King Manor Museum if  a desk they have in their collections was actually Rufus King’s. I will photograph it in the near future and ask for the opinions of my readers.

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2 Responses to What Was in Rufus King’s Library?

  1. Scott says:

    Fascinating, Dave.

  2. Laura Ping says:

    I remember you telling us about King’s bookshelves. I think every historian needs a set just like them! Nice write up!

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