The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Early women buying books: the evidence

In 1684, Bridget Trench bought herself a copy of the Rev. Samuel Clarke’s General Martyrologie, a collection of biographies of those who had been persecuted for their beliefs in the history of the church in England.

Samuel Clarke, General Martyrologie (London, 1677) Folger C4515

The book contains a lot of good stories whose interest is heightened by the promise on the title page of “cruel, horrid, and inhumane sufferings.” Bridget really wanted this book, but it was expensive, so she had been saving for some time. We know this because she wrote on a front flyleaf exactly how she acquired the book:

1684/ Bridget Trench her book Cost: L:01: S:10: 0/ My Cosen White dieing left me 20 Shelengs for a ring/ & Mother Trenches maid died & left me 10s for a ring/ & not wanting rings boath [bought] this book in memory of them . . . .

Folger C4515 folio, detail, front flyleaf, recto

Two women she knew had died—her cousin and a maid—and had left her money to purchase mourning rings. Instead of the rings, she bought this book in their memory. One pound in 1684 would be worth about $150 today; it was a lot of money back then, equivalent to 11 days wages for a skilled tradesman.1 The book was worth the price to Bridget; it’s a large folio volume with copper-plate engravings, some of which are hair raising.

It is unusual to find references to women buying books in this era and even more unusual to find them with such detail as to the circumstances. A small handful of these volumes, described here, came to light while I was searching for women owners of STC and Wing books in the Folger collections. All of these women’s purchases were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though in some cases the books were published much earlier.

The earliest recorded purchase (and also earliest book) I found comes with a couple of mysteries. Bartholomew Traheron’s Exposition of a parte of S. Iohannes Gospel was published in Wesel in 1557. Traheron was a reformer, born during the reign of Henry VIII, who moved back and forth between England and the continent, depending on which way religious views were tending in England, and finally lived and died in Germany, while the Catholic Mary Tudor was on the English throne. The Folger’s copy of his Exposition is signed by Katherine Wilkinson on the bottom of the page where he dedicates his work to “To My Most Dere Sister Elisabeth P.”

Bartholomew Traheron, Exposition (Wesel, 1557) Folger STC 24168, leaf A2r.

I have found that women frequently signed a page dedicating a book to another woman. We do not know for sure who Elisabeth P. was, but Jennifer Loache has plausibly suggested it might be a hidden reference to the Princess Elizabeth, whom many Protestants looked to as their hoped-for leader.2

Katherine’s inscription itself is open to interpretation: “this is Katherine Wilkinsons Book/ boug[ht] at London 163[7], 1690.”

Bartholomew Traheron, Exposition (Wesel, 1557) Folger STC 24168, leaf A2r, detail.

The date of the purchase is complicated by another inscription by Katherine on a page giving the Nicene Creed. She dates the top and the bottom of that page 1636, and writes: “this is Katherine Wilkinsons/ Booke 1636.”

Bartholomew Traheron, Exposition (Wesel, 1557) Folger STC 24168, leaf A6r detail.

If Katherine indeed owned the book in 1636, which seems clear, then she must have purchased it earlier than 1637, but what is the last number in the first date of the first inscription? And how does the 1690 date fit in?

The next book has a connection with the New World. Thomas Shepard’s Parable of the Ten Virgins Opened and Applied was reprinted in a corrected edition in 1695. According to the title page, Shepard had been the minister of a church “at Cambridge in New-England” (i.e. Massachusetts), and his son Thomas, “minister at Charles-Town” (now part of Boston) helped ensure its publication.

Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins ([London], 1695) Folger 135- 585f.
This folio volume was later bought by Catharine Gray who noted her purchase at the top of the title page: “Catharine Gray aught this book agust 17 1716” (or perhaps it is “agust 1717” followed by a price?).

Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins ([London], 1695), Folger 135- 585f, detail, title page
In the eighteenth century, we find a couple of women making purchases at auctions. According to Richard Landon, one of the earliest recorded book auctions in London occurred “with the Lazarus Seaman sale of 31 October 1676,” although as he points out, there may well have been earlier sales for which we have found no evidence.3 By the eighteenth century, book auctions were flourishing. It is impossible to know whether these women attended the sales themselves or had a proxy, as the antiquarian book world was predominantly male.

On February 18, 1740, Sarah Langley purchased a copy of the fourth edition of John Swan’s Speculum Mundi (London, 1670). The quarto-sized book is over 400 pages.

John Swan, Speculum Mundi (London, 1670). Folger S6240

Sarah claimed the book twice on the title page.  Her inscription about the auction at the top of the page reads: “at an auction S. Langley/ Feb: 18th 17[4]0”; the number seems to be a “4” but it is difficult to read. (The other ownership mark is in a 19th century hand and reads “W Richardson 1840”.)

John Swan, Speculum Mundi (London, 1670). Detail, top, title page. Folger S6240

At the bottom of the title page, she reaffirmed her ownership, perhaps fifty years later, writing: “Sarah Langley’s ^ Senior Book, 1790.” By that time, she may have had a daughter, daughter-in-law, or granddaughter “Sarah,” leading her to clarify her identity.

John Swan, Speculum Mundi (London, 1670). Detail, bottom, title page. Folger S6240

A few years later, in 1793, Ann King acquired a copy of the small treatise Unpremeditated Thoughts of the Knowledge of God (1695). This book was “Printed and Sold by T. Sowle,” that is Tace Sowle, daughter of printers Andrew and Jane Sowle. Tace took over the business in 1690 and became “the leading Quaker printer and bookseller” from 1691 until 1749, the year of her death.4 The title page further identifies the author as “a Woman, who is a Lover of Truth and Peace, and calls her Self IRENA.” Scholars have identified her as Rebecca Critchlow, member of a seventeenth-century visionary group known as Philadelphians, which included “mystic and writer” Jane Lead.5

Unpremeditated Thoughts of the Knowledge of God (London, 1695). Folger U92

Ann King registered her purchase by writing on the front flyleaf: “Ann King/ Purchased at Wm Clays/ sale 1793.” Above her inscription we see the signature of William Clay and above that “Joseph King,” likely a member of Ann’s family. It’s possible that the Kings were Quakers; certainly an Ann King from Newcastle-on-Tyne (married to James King) “was a ministering Friend living for some time in Edinburgh” where her presence was noted in 1783, and there are Quaker Kings from northeast England.6

Unpremeditated Thoughts of the Knowledge of God (London, 1695). Detail front flyleaf. Folger U92

I have not been able to find a reference to the sale of Clay’s books, but this volume is of special interest, as the owner, the printer, and the author were all women.

These five books offer a small but important window into the buying practices of early modern women. It is much more usual to find women exchanging books as gifts, often among family members—fathers, mothers, grandchildren—and sometimes with teachers or friends. We know that other women bought books but they did not always note the purchase. One of the largest early libraries was formed by Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677), who often wrote her name in her books, but more rarely purchase information. As Lori Newcomb has pointed out, Wolfreston does on occasion note “the price of the book in shillings and/or pence, the site of its purchase (‘of a soldar’ or ‘at London’), or its gift from a relative.”7

The Folger owns over a dozen of her books, but she does not include purchase information in those. (For more on Wolfreston’s books at the Folger, see the Collation post by Sarah Lindenbaum.) More instances of women purchasing books are coming to light as scholars record their finds on Twitter and in blog posts, and antiquarian book dealers identify items of interest in their own stocks. The blog Early Modern Female Book Ownership is a good place to start for further investigation, and the next time you visit a library or search book dealers’ and libraries’ online catalogs, be on the lookout for marks of women buying books.

  1. See “Currency converter: 1270-2017,” The National Archives (accessed May 9, 2020).
  2. Jennifer Loache, “Pamphlets and Politics, 1553-8,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 48.117 (May 1975), 43. On Traheron, see Carl R. Trueman, “Traheron, Bartholomew (c.1510-1558?),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. Richard Landon, “The Antiquarian Book Trade in Britain 1695-1830: The Use of Auction and Booksellers’ Catalogues,” in The History of the Book in the West: 1700-1800, ed. Eleanor F. Shevlin (New York: Routledge, 2016), 223.
  4. Paula McDowell, “Sowle [married name Sowle Raylton], Tace (1666-1749),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  5. Ariel Hessayon, “Lead’s Life and Times (Part Two): The Woman in the Wilderness,” in Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy, ed. Ariel Hessayon (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 61. And see also, Sylvia Bowerbank, “Lead [née Ward], Jane (1624-1704),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  6. William F. Miller, Note in The Journal of the Friends Historical Society, 3.1 (January 1906), 8.
  7. Lori Humphrey Newcomb, “Frances Wolfreston’s Annotations as Labours of Love,” in Women’s Labour and the History of the Book in Early Modern England, ed. Valerie Wayne (London; New York: The Arden Shakespeare, 2020), 252.

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