Wagner Collection of Mexican Broadsides

Biographical Sketch of Henry Raup Wagner

Ritchie, Ward. "Henry R. Wagner (27 September 1862-28 March 1957)", American Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, Dictionary of Literary Biography (v. 140), c1994.

Henry R. Wagner had an incredible memory. Names, dates, and events lodged in his mind to be sorted and used in the scores of books and articles he wrote during the long afternoon of his life. In explaining why he had left an important and well-paying position at the comparatively early age of fifty-five, he wrote in his autbiography Bullion to Books: Fifty Years of Business and Pleasure (1942), "The real reason was I wanted to divorce pleasure from business. I have been combining the two for a good many years and my dislike for business kept growing all the time while my interest in bibliographical and research work kept increasing."

Henry Raup Wagner was born in Philadelphia on 27 September 1862. In 1880 he matriculated at Yale University, where he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a founding member of Wolf's Head, and one of the men who incorporated the fabled Mory's restaurant. He graduated from Yale Law school in June 1886 and went to Kansas City, where he began the practice of law. After about a year he bought shares in a silver mine in New Mexico and worked there for a short time. His interest shifted from law to mining, and for the next few years he moved from place to place and from job to job in that industry. On one sojourn in Mexico he became curious about a primitive method of smelting ore; known as the Patio process, it had apparently been introduced into Mexico in the sixteenth century but had never been used in the United States.

Up to this point Wagner had no interest in collecting books; soon after stumbling on evidence of the Patio process, however, he found a book describing it in a bookstall in Mexico City. This discovery piqued his curiosity, and he began searching for other material on the subject. He was able to find little in the bookstores of Denver, where he was headquartered at the time. Soon thereafter he was offered a managerial position with the Guggenheims' American Smelting and Refining Company and was sent to places that proved to be more productive in his search for books. During a stay in Chile he found quite a few works on mining and smelting, and he came upon even more in London. It was not a field in which there was much competition, so he was able to pursue his interest uncontested. What was to be the first of his many collections grew to more than six hundred items; he eventually gave them to Yale.

Wagner became addicted to books and began to enjoy the lure of the search. During a three-year stay in London beginning in 1903 he haunted the bookstores and auction houses. He wrote of his experience in Bullion to Books:

    "The number of these bookstores in London is incalcuable. I certainly must have visited over one hundred, usually with no other result than to get my nose, clothes and hands full of dust. At that time I had the idea that this was the proper way to buy books. It is true that if you have nothing else to do and plenty of time to do it in you can extract a lot of pleasure from this peripatetic book-hunting, but it is a filthy job and brings very few rewards. After the first year I practically stopped going to more than one or two bookstores." He goes on to say: "The game of buying books is a great deal like a poker game. When you start playing poker a bet of fifty cents or one dollar lokks like real money, but after you have played a year or two it looks like so much chicken-feed. Just so with buying books. When you begin $5 looks like a lot of money for a book, but after you have contracted the habit and the virus has thoroughly infected your system you do not even shudder at $50."

The relative scarcity of books on the narrow aspect of mining and metallurgy in which he was interested turned Wagner's collecting into a new direction: books on money. This pursuit resulted in an enormous collection of more then ten thousand items, which was eventually deposited at Yale. He became interested in Irish writers on money and economics, especially those of the eighteenth century. He went to Dublin to inspect the Trinity College collection and also examined those at Oxford and Cambridge. On the basis of this information and of his own collection he compiled and had printed Irish Economics: 1700-1783. A Bibliography with Notes (1907).

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Just before his first book appeared in London, Wagner was transferred to Mexico. His interest soon shifted to books on the history and literature of the revolutionary period in that country. This collection, also containing books about Chile, grew to twenty thousand items. He sold it to Yale for twenty-five thousand dollars, and it constitutes the major portion of the collection catalogued by Frederick Bliss Luguiens in Spanish American Literature in the Yale University Library (1939).

In 1917 Wagner retired, married Blanche Henriette Collett, and moved to Berkeley, California, to devote the remainder of his life to historical research. He was not wealthy, but he had sufficient funds to buy the books he needed for his research. His collecting priorities were usually influenced by his place of residence, and since he was located in the western United States, his interest shifted to that region. He began collecting narratives of the western migration, and when his collection had grown to sufficient proportions, he completed a bibliography, The Plains and the Rockies: A Contribution to the Bibliography of Original Narratives of Travel and Adventure, 1800-1865 (1920). He was called to New York while the book was being printed and relied on the printer to do the proofreading. When he returned, he found more than three hundred errors in the book. He immediately withdrew it, offering to exchange any copies that had been purchased for a copy of the corrected edition; all but about twenty copies of the first edition were recovered. (An advantage of owning the original edition of 1920 over the revised edition of 1921 is that in the former the titles of the books owned personally by Wagner are marked with an asterisk: of the 349 books and pamphlets described, all but 47 were in his collection.) This bibliography has been augmented and reprinted several times; the most handsome edition, revised and extended to 428 items by Charles L. Camp, was printed in 1937 by the Grabhorn Press. Of it Wagner remarked, "It is more beautiful than a bibliography ought to be." Wagner subsequently sold his western collection to Henry E. Huntington; it comprised more than three thousand items.

In 1928 Wagner moved south to San Marino to be close to the Huntington Library. Not long afterward he required a translation from the German of some material on Hernán Cortés; seeking help from the University of California at Los Angeles, he was referred to a young student in the German department, Ruth Frey (later Ruth Frey Axe). She did such a satisfactory job that he requested that she come to work as his secretary after her graduation. While she had planned to go on to graduate school and become a teacher, she accepted his offer. Though she did continue with graduate school, she served as Wagner's secretary from 1929 until his death. She wrote in her reminiscences of Wagner (1981):

    "Mr. Wagner was always seated at his desk when I arrived.... He had always been working for some time before I arrived and we plunged immediately into the day's program as he had planned it. He told me that at Berkeley he usually worked until midnight or later, but after moving to San Marino his habits had changed and he became a much earlier riser. His practice was to dictate directly to the typist. He expressed his thoughts so clearly and his work was so well planned that it was sometimes possible to use the first draft with few or no corrections."

In 1931 Wagner became a member of the Zamorano Club, a group of fifty or sixty bibliophiles, librarians, and printers. There was a monthly dinner meeting at which a member or guest speaker would give a talk on a bookish subject; in addition, there was an informal luncheon gathering in the club's rooms each Wednesday. Wagner seldom missed either the evening or luncheon meetings. The club's rooms and library were on the fourth floor of the University Club, a downtown Los Angeles building handy to the many bookstores that at that time were clustered around Sixth Street and Grand Avenue. Following the Wednesday luncheons, many of the members--usually led by Wagner--would trek around the corner to visit the bookstores, finally converging on the fabled store of Ernest Dawson at the corner of Wilshire and Grand avenues.

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After Wagner had finished writing about a subject, he lost interest in keeping the books he had collected on it. Also, he found that after he had published a bibliography, other collectors became interested in the subject, and he could sell his collection at a profit. In this way he not only made room for new books but also acquired money to buy them. As a result, his library turned over almost completely every few years. He said that the only books he regretted having parted with were those on which he had not compiled a bibliography. He collected everything he could find on a given subject and also did much research in libraries in Spain, England, Mexico, and the United States. Some of his more important collections were those on sixteenth-century Mexican imprints, sold to the Huntington; Spanish explorations on the Northwest coast; books published by Grabhorn Press; and the Cortés collection. In 1937 the University of California Press published Wagner's The Cartography of the Northwest Coast of America to the Year 1800 in two volumes. This work, along with The Plains and the Rockies and The Spanish Southwest, 1542-1794 (1924), comprise Wagner's most enduring and important contributions to bibliography.

The Zamorano Club's evening meeting for September 1947 was a surprise celebration for Wagner's forthcoming eighty-fifth birthday. Wagner was seated, surrounded by friends and with a glass of sherry in his hand, when into the room were escorted his wife; his secretary; his former secretary from Berkeley, Signe Harding; and Dorothy Huggins, a close friend from San Francisco. At that time there were no women members, and it was against the rules of the University Club for women to be entertained anywhere except in special quarters on the first floor. Wagner's immediate reaction was one of shock at this improper intrusion, but it quickly turned into a wide smile upon having these women who were so dear to him joining in the occasion. There were many short talks in praise and friendship, and Francis Farquhar presented Wagner with a handsome book printed by the Grabhorn Press, Essays for Henry R. Wagner, that included pieces by Farquhar, Camp, Huggins, George L. Harding, and Carl I. Wheat, all friends of Wagner's from San Francisco. Finally, Wagner replied with a few words of advice from his position as an elder statesman. He admonished the club never to go into debt. He warned it against becoming just a social organization, saying that it should have some projects; he suggested that indexing the seven volumes of Hubert H. Bancroft's History of California (San Francisco: History Company, 1884-1890) would be of great service to scholars. Also needing indexing were the publications of the Historical Society of Southern California and Charles Lumnis's Land of Sunshine: The Magazine of California and the West (1894-1901). (His suggestion was immediately followed in regard to the History of California. Chapters were allotted to various members, but with amateurs attempting to do a professional's work the project lingered on until it was finally turned over to two professional indexers, Everett and Anna Marie Hager. It was completed and published in two volumes in 1985, thirty-eight years after Wagner's initial suggestion.)

The Zamorano Club celebrated each succeeding birthday in the garden of Wagner's home in San Marino. His eyesight gradually failed; he remarked, "My mind has outlived my body. It's a pity they couldn't have gone together." He continued to work, however, arriving at his desk at 8:00, working until noon, and, after a twenty-minute lunch break, continuing until 4:40. His routine included dictating without notes and reading the material he had gathered (or being read to after he became blind). He usually carried on three projects at the same time, explaining that it kept him from going stale on any one of them. He continued to buy books, ordering some the day before he died on 28 March 1957 at the age of ninety-four.

Henry R. Wagner was not a book collector in the strict sense; he bought books not to collect them but to use them. While he gave books to several institutions, especially Yale, he remained skeptical of the practice. According to Axe, he said, "Giving books is a very pleasant enterprise but I have always found it more grateful to the giver than the receiver. I have come to the conclusion that especially libraries do not appreciate gift books. What they want to do is to pay a high price for them, if they have the money, and then they think they have a prize which they exhibit in a glass case. If you happened to give them the same book it would disappear on the shelves and no one would hear about it."

The first bibliography of Wagner's writings (1934) listed 68 items. In his autobiography Bullion to Books, Wagner listed 97 items. The Published Writings of Henry R. Wagner (1955) included 167 books and articles. The definitive bibliography of Wagner's writings, compiled by Axe and published in 1988, lists 193 items.

In the preface to the 1955 bibliography Farquhar wrote: "More than once Henry Wagner has remarked that his published works have never made a profit either for himself or for his publisher. They were designed for scholars in specialized fields and were not expected to be popular. That does not mean, however, that they are not important. As a matter of fact, many of them are so important that they will affect the writing of history for a long time to come. No greater contribution has been made in the past hundred years to the knowledge and understanding of the Sixteenth Century in America than is contained in The Spanish Southwest, Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America, Sir Francis Drake's Voyage Around the World, The Cartography of the Northwest Coast of America, Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo, and the three Cortés Society volumes--The Discovery of the Yucatan, The Discovery of New Spain, and The Rise of Fernando Cortés. Equal in value to almost any one of these books would be a volume embracing the shorter essays and reviews relating to this period. Nor is the Sixteenth Century the only period illuminated by Wagner's great scholarship. The comments in The Plains and the Rockies and in California Imprints exemplify his remarkable ability to perceive the significance of items passed over or misunderstood by others."

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URL: http://www.library.yale.edu/~mtheroux/wagbiog.htm
Comments to: manon.theroux@yale.edu
Last Revised: 21 January 1998