Beads, Medals, (and also) Books: What Jesuits Sold in 1849

The following is the next installment in Dan Snow’s exploration of the data from 1849 in the Jesuit book trade ledger he has been studying with Bianca Barcenas and Kyle Roberts over the past academic year. Here he shares some preliminary results from transcribing the sakes data.

Since January, I have been examining the orders that appear over the course of a five-month period (May-September 1849) in the book trade ledger held in the St. Louis University Archives that we’ve been working on over the past year. Last week, I finished transcribing the orders made by various priests, institutions, and lay persons throughout the Mississippi Valley. In total, there were 119 orders over this period.

May 24 orders 301 items
June 32 orders 306 items
July 18 orders 311 items
August 29 orders 326 items
September 16 orders 150 items

I created a spreadsheet to capture this data. On each new line I recorded each item – books, medals, beads, pictures – listed as sold, along with (if listed) its quantity and price. For example, the order on the top of page 472 begins with Rev. Father Siegrist purchasing “20 Gebetbuch 1 doz. Crosses” (Gebetbuch is German for “prayer book”). To represent this I made two lines on my spreadsheet, the first for Gebetbuch and the second for the crosses. After my first pass, the total number of items listed across all the transactions is 1,394. (This number could change pending review.) That is not to say only 1,394 items were bought – a purchaser may have bought one copy of “True Piety” but eight copies of “Key to Heaven.” A future stage of my work will involve calculating, as best as I can (with the incomplete information recorded), the quantity of items sold.

A page from Dan’s spreadsheet showing some of the information he gathered about each item in the part of the ledger he analyzed, including a standardized name, quantity, and cost.

Doubtless few people count transcribing among their favorite activities and the repetitiveness of the task doesn’t do much to elicit enjoyment. That being said, I did find the past few weeks of transcribing to be useful. When I first looked over the nineteenth-century handwriting I set out to transcribe, I felt a bit anxious. I’ve never been great at reading handwriting and the ledger seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. The first week was difficult: I misread titles, struggled to decipher each line, and skipped countless works. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I did not realize at first that each line usually held more than one title. With that breakthrough, the amount of work ahead of me increased but I began to develop a greater understanding of what I was looking at. I became much more familiar with the handwriting I was seeing – though certain letters still held me up – and with the titles listed. I could start to recognize the various shorthand abbreviations for “catechism” and could pick out German works with greater accuracy.

Over the course of the process, the amount of time I was spending transcribing each line dropped dramatically and my accuracy improved. Abbreviations continued to complicate the matter as often times the ledger’s author listed titles in shorthand by writing “Gel. Sey J. C.” for a work like Gelobt Sei Jesus Christus. For many works, these abbreviations can be easily tied to their full title. For works abbreviated as “Cath. Chr.”, one may encounter many books which began with “Catholic Christian.” These abbreviated titles then complicate our understanding of the market. There were still many items that I could not recognize and there were still plenty of errors, but the vast majority I was able to transcribe with a high degree of certainty. (About 1,291 of the 1,394 have been transcribed with great confidence.) I struggled with fitting the non-standard format of the ledger into a spreadsheet that would accurately represent a series of abbreviations and a numbers system that was incomplete at best. I still need to make some alterations to my system of recording, but it is a gratifying experience to look back over the hundreds of items I have transcribed and be confident in what I had written.

Title page of Alton Park published by Eugene Cummiskey, a frequent wholesaler to the Jesuits (Source: Internet Archive)

Nonetheless, a simple transcription was never the end goal of my work this semester and I am happy to be moving on to the next step. Now that nearly all of the titles in the orders have been transcribed, I can begin analyzing what was bought. The first thing I need to do is make a list of unique items. As I mentioned, there are repetitions of different works among the 1,394 listings. For example, Alton Park, a didactic novel by Mary Winter, appears three times on my spreadsheet: in transactions 50, 63, and 80. In my new spreadsheet, I will list Alton Park only once, but will also note that it was listed in three transactions, that it sold at least three copies, and that it was listed as costing $1.50 in one of those transactions. By doing the same for the rest of the listings, I’ll be able to know just how extensive the Jesuit offerings were, but also be able to calculate what were the most frequently purchased items.

In terms of frequency, the most commonly appearing item (again, not counting the number sold but frequency of purchase) was not a book: 87 times over five months “beads” appeared in the ledger (91 counting “small beads” and “crosses and beads”). Beads could refer to a number of things and the term was likely used as an umbrella term for rosaries and other devotional elements. Beads could also be ordered in large quantities; while the vast majority do not have a listed quantity, the ones that do vary from 12 up to 72. After beads comes another non-literary item: medals. Medals could represent a number of things ranging from small pendants of the Madonna and child to various saintly images reproduced for communions or confirmations. Medals were divided into three categories, including “medals” (21), “gold medals” (22), and “silver medals” (28), along with two “silver and gold medal” orders. Medals frequently varied in the amount ordered: again, many had no listed quantity, but could number under ten or in the dozens.

Title page for an 1836 copy published in
Montreal (Source: Internet Archive)

The third most common item was a German prayer book entitled Gelobt Sei Jesus Christus which appeared 35 times. That a German work would appear so frequently reflects a broader demand for German books within the ledger. While the majority of books were predominantly English, German works were not uncommon (out of the 353 unique titles, 45 were German works). French works were also common, but less so than German books. The most frequently appearing French work was “Ange Conducteur” – Jacques Coret’s L’ange conducteur dans la dévotion chrétienneat 12 appearances. Coret, a Belgian Jesuit, first published L’ange conducteur as a devotional prayer book in 1681 in Paris. It would be reprinted numerous times throughout the Catholic world in the next century and a half, with an 1836 edition being published in Montreal. This is a work that would have appealed to French-speaking clergy, students, and laity. Yet German settlement was rising at a much faster rate than French. During the 1840s and into the 1850s, German settlement in Missouri and in the United States generally was on the rise, and this fact is reflected in the books ordered in the 1849 account.

 The next two common works were each devotional manuals: the “Ursuline Manual” at 32 appearances and “St. Vincent’s Manual” at 30. “Pictures” – likely images of devotional scenes, saints, Christ, Mary, etc. – appeared 28 times, reflecting the popularity of devotional objects in mid-century Catholicism. While the great majority of items in the ledger are books, the frequency at which non-book items like “pictures,” “beads, and “medals” – along with crosses at 22 appearances and crucifixes at 18 – reflects a devotional world that would thrive through the century.

Moving forward with this project, I will be working on understanding the unique titles being sold in 1849 and trying to trace when they were bought by the Jesuits. Using the import data for 1848 and 1849, I should be able to track the origins of books that were sold throughout the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys between May and September of 1849. This step will offer a broader look at the market for Catholic goods and will help show where the books being exported were coming from. This connection is a vital step to understanding the book trade and piecing together this literary world.

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