From the archivist’s table: John F. Fleming, Incorporated Records, 1952-1987

John F. Fleming, Inc. sales receipt letter head. From John F. Fleming Records, 1952-1987, box 45: Rosenbach Records Sales Record Book, 1954-1956

The Grolier Club Library counts itself fortunate to act not only as steward of our memorable rare book collection but also of our manuscript and archive collections.  Along with our own institutional records and the institutional records of other bookish societies like the BSA and ABAA, the Library contains a myriad of archival holdings which support the Club’s mission “to foster the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper, their art, history, production, and commerce.”  This includes the papers of collectors, scholars, printers, designers, illustrators, typographers, and of course, booksellers.

We are pleased to announce that the John Fleming, Incorporated Records (1952-1987) have been fully processed and are available for research use.  Bequeathed by the Estate of John Fleming to the Grolier Club in 1988, the collection contains nearly 46 linear feet of correspondence, notes, financial and business records, research, photographs, newspaper clippings, and inventories.  It offers an interesting array of resources and a unique glimpse into the machinations of a one-of-a-kind, successful 20th-century American antiquarian bookseller.  

Fleming’s storied career began when he was hired as a 15-year-old clerk for the legendary Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach at his New York City apartment and showroom, first located on Madison Avenue, then 51st Street, and ultimately at 322 East 57th Street.  Rosenbach, often called the “Napoleon of Books,” soon realized Fleming’s enthusiasm and acuity, and became a mentor to the younger man.  Fleming, in turn, was steadily promoted: to salesman, manager and ultimately Vice-President. He became integral to the company: in an unpublished biographical sketch of Fleming, Mary Hyde Eccles explained “One bought books from the Doctor–but through John.”

After Rosenbach’s death in 1952, Fleming made headlines by buying out much of his remaining collection and apartment.  On March 14, 1955, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported “Rosenbach’s Ex-Office Boy Buys Rare Book Collection;” the New York Times heralded “Rosenbach Aide Buys Collection: ex-clerk gets items worth $2,000,000 from the late bibliophile’s rarities;” and the Manchester Guardian declared “Ex-Clerk pays ₤700,000 for Rare Books.” Although eye-catching, these headlines almost disregard the fact that Fleming had steadily advanced within the Rosenbach Company for nearly three decades, and was hardly still an office boy.  

Newsclipping, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, March 14, 1955. From John F. Fleming Records, 1952-1987, box 47, folder 2

Fleming continued work as an antiquarian bookseller under John F. Fleming, Inc.  However, it is not surprising that Rosenbach’s name is on or is referenced in much of the collection.  In some cases, the line between where the Rosenbach Foundation ends and John Fleming Inc. begins is blurred.  A simple sales record book with sales receipts pasted onto each page makes this plain. The dates on the receipts span from 1954 to 1956, the time when Fleming purchased much of the Rosenbach collection.  In many cases old sales slips imprinted with the Rosenbach Foundation or Company were simply reused and edited: names and addresses were just crossed out as needed.

For archivists, it is very tempting to fall down ‘rabbit holes’ of tangential research that, although interesting, are not truly apropos to professional scope.  With this collection, the archival stars aligned and the ‘rabbit hole’ actually came to me. Among the material in this collection was a box of newspaper clippings and other publicity dating as far back as 1952. Included were a number of articles about Fleming’s 1955 purchase of a pair of miniatures of George and Martha Washington.  He had traced the paintings’ ownership history and purchased them from descendants of the artist, Archibald Robertson (1765-1835). I thought these were distinctive because they were not traditional works on paper. Later on, while processing the sales record book I serendipitously located the receipt of sale for these miniatures in 1956!  They were sold to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where by email I was able to confirm they remain today.

Left: Newsclipping, The Times, December 9, 1955, with congratulatory message. From John F. Fleming Records, 1952-1987, box 47, folder 2
Right: Feb. 4, 1956 sales receipt. From John F. Fleming Records, 1952-1987, box 45: Rosenbach Records Sales Record Book, 1954-1956

Although this kind of lucky coincidence may seem trivial to some, as an archivist it is exciting to identify connections within collections.  It also helps me piece together a snapshot of the person or organization I am working with. I can never expect to become a subject specialist on every box of manuscript material that comes across my table, but it is fun to try to get a crash course.  I look forward to sharing some more finds with you in the future!

by Kendra Meyer

References:

Kate Teiken Rogers, Email correspondence with author, February 4, 2019.

Eccles, Mary Hyde. John F. Fleming, 1910-1987 [unpublished biographical sketch]

Wolf, Edwin, and Fleming, John. Rosenbach: A Biography. Cleveland: World Publishing Co, 1960.

“John Fleming, Leading Dealer of Rare Books,” New York Times, Dec. 21, 1987.

The Grolier Club, “A Brief History of the Grolier Club.” Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.grolierclub.org/Default.aspx?p=DynamicModule&pageid=268768&ssid=136857&vnf=1

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