Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The John G. White Collection

The Gambit, Official Publication of the Missouri Pacific St. Louis Chess Club, issued a Souvenir Edition in June 1930 devoted to the John G. White Collection in the Cleveland Public Library.

Following a page of Acknowledgments and a portrait of the late John Griswold White by Sandor Vago, there is a biography of White written by Mrs. Ina B. Roberts, the publicity representative of the Cleveland Public Library, noting that he was born in 1845, graduated in 1865, admitted to the bar in 1868 and first elected to the Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Public Library in 1883. White was President of the Board for 15 years before his death in 1928 aged 83.

A detailed description of The John G. White Collection of Folklore and Orientalia is given by the collection's librarian Gordon W. Thayer. I will comment briefly on this before moving on to The Chess Collection

The foundations of The Collection of Folklore and Orientalia were laid at the end of the 19th century when the United States acquired the Philippines. The CPL had few books about these islands, and White rectified this by acquiring a number of books about the Philippines and donating them to the library. After several years of donating further books on the Orient, folklore, archeology and the early voyages, it was decided to keep all of these books together in what became known as The John Griswold White Collection of Folklore and Orientalia.  
The books were housed in a special library in a long, beautiful room overlooking Lake Erie. The Collection is extraordinarily wide-ranging and rich in material - two of the more exotic items being bronze figurines from the tomb of King Tutankhamen, and a book of magic spells, written with boiled lemon juice on folded birch bark, formerly owned by the medicine man of a savage tribe from Sumatra; now there's a book you don't see every day.  

Five pages of this Souvenir Edition are devoted to a description of the Folklore and Orientalia Collection, and the more you read, the more you marvel at the scope and content of this remarkable collection covering witchcraft, alchemy, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, customs and manners, traditions, mythical legends, gypsies, superstitions etc. etc. I will be pleased to send scans of these pages to anyone interested.

By contrast, the rather disappointing, and poorly written, article on The Chess Collection receives only three and a half pages of coverage. The author of this essay was the chess collection's librarian, Walter C. Green, who displays a distinct lack of knowledge and understanding of his subject. No doubt this was due to the fact that he was new to the job, since the chess and checkers collection had only recently been donated to the library following J. G. White's death in August 1928. Perhaps this June 1930 article is the first account of the great Chess Collection.

Walter Green talks of "Angell's Handbook of Chess", (presumably meaning Agnel's Book of Chess), "the chess automaton" (which one?), "Harold H. W. Murray's monumental history of chess", and there are obvious errors such as "collection of mathematics" (should be manuscripts).  

Instead of delighting us with mouth-watering descriptions of the undoubted treasures in the collection, Green goes on and on about the extensive material held relating to the knight's tour and cubic chess, whatever that is.  In fact there is barely a mention of any individual chess books, just generalities about having lots of this and loads of that. 

There are, however, some interesting revelations:

a. The chess and checkers collection contained around 12,000 volumes in 1930; the most recent estimates that I can find give figures of between 32,000 and 35,000, including over 6,000 bound volumes of periodicals.

b. Chess columns from newspapers and magazines formed an important part of the collection which had 400 bound volumes of these cuttings, including 140 bound volumes from the J. W. Rimington Wilson collection.

c. Bound chess periodicals in all languages numbered about 1,000 and were, with one or two exceptions, complete.

d. J. G. White specified in his will that all advertising pages were to be bound up with the periodicals, a practice, unfortunately, not adopted by many magazine publishers when binding up there own volumes.  

e. White's greatest interest, in the latter part of his life, was in manuscripts, and he went to great trouble and expense to acquire either originals or copies of these.

The three pages of illustrations are equally disappointing; the only chess books displayed are some run-of-the-mill beginners books by Cunnington and Blake, and these are not even the cloth-bound first editions but later, paper covered, editions. However, these books are merely the back-drop to some replicas of the Lewis chessmen. A second illustration shows the same replica Lewis chessmen, while the third illustration shows some more chessmen.  

The full article on The Chess Collection follows:

                                        © Michael Clapham 2017

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