(re)Discovering History in the Salisbury House Library

The Library at Salisbury House is the stunning manifestation of Carl Weeks’ longtime love of collecting books. From fifteenth-century incunabula, to Grant Wood, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence, the collection includes a trove of wonders.

Most of these books are still displayed on the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House, as they were during the Weeks family’s residency (from 1926 to the early 1950s).

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Archival Image of the Library, c. 1930

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The Library Today

Our records include several Library inventories from over the years, but it became clear that a newly-updated catalog was necessary. Thus, we embarked upon a multi-year project of revisiting every entry in the collection inventory. Each book was taken off the shelves, meticulously examined for condition issues, ephemera, signatures, etc. and – crucially – each book’s location in the Library was confirmed and/or corrected as well.

We could not have finished this mammoth project without the assistance of our wonderful Library volunteers: Christine Whitney, Charles Timberlake, and Judy Ford were integral to the inventory’s successful completion.

Two and a half years later: we’re done! The dream, from our museum staff’s perspective, would be to make the inventory fully available and searchable online. For now, though, we wanted to share a very special discovery that Judy and I made during the final day of updating the collection.

Two medieval Books of Hours number among the most visually stunning works in the Library. These volumes typically contained a range of psalms, hymns, and prayers, and became immensely popular among laymen and women between the 13th and the 16th centuries. The two Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection contain elements typical of most works in this genre – illumination, decorative borders, full-page illustrations (called miniatures), and text in Latin.

Pictured below is one example from our collection, including the cover, full-page miniature, and decorative text:

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The second Book of Hours in the collection is slightly larger. It dates to the late 14th century and is also highly decorative:

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These two volumes represent the full extent of the Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection.

….or do they??

As it turns out: we have a third Book of Hours! Now, we did start to wonder as we neared the end of the inventory. We had noted a third entry for a Book of Hours in the old inventory but, believing as we did that the two known copies were all we had, assumed that the third item in the inventory was a duplicate/erroneous entry. Soon, though, we rediscovered a bit of history lost among the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House.

It all began innocuously enough. We pulled a volume enclosed in a very nice, custom-made case with the label “Novum TestamentumJohn Trumbull’s Copy – 1794″ on its spine.

“Well, that’s interesting,” we agreed, “it must be early American artist Trumbull’s copy of the New Testament.”

As with every book we pulled from the shelves during the process of updating the inventory, we removed it from the case for a closer inspection of condition, etc.

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First, we noticed that the book itself didn’t quite fit into its custom-made enclosure:

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Odd.

And then we opened the front cover.

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Hmm. Well, that certainly doesn’t look like it’s from the late 18th century, we agreed. That feeling grew as we leafed through subsequent pages.

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And then we realized – we’d found it! There actually was a third Book of Hours! It had, many years ago, been mistakenly placed in a case that belonged with the Trumbull New Testament (which sat, uncased, a few books down the shelf).

This third Book of Hours includes less decorative elements when compared to the other two, but it will always hold a special place in our hearts. All in all, it’s not a bad day at work when you (re)discover a late 14th/early 15th century book in your museum’s collection!