Libraries in the Library: How We Know What Early Virginians Liked to Read

Posted on July 30, 2019

Today’s blog post is written by Sydney Miller, a doctoral candidate in Early American History at the Ohio State University and one of our 2018-2019 travel grant recipients. Miller’s research examines the intersections of politics and print culture in early Virginia history. Read on to learn more about her findings in the Special Collections Research Center.

Sydney Miller. She stands in front of a white wall and smiles for the camera, hands clasped neatly at her waist. Her top is a burnt orange color, and she wears two long gold necklaces. Her hair is shoulder length and dirty blonde.
Sydney Miller

Do you keep your receipts? The Special Collections Research Center has a good number of receipts and these seemingly mundane documents can provide valuable insight into early Virginians’ lives. Many are for financial transactions, agricultural purchases, or common goods and services. All of them help historians understand how people got what they needed—or wanted! Some receipts, though, are more unusual—like a receipt from the Skipwith Family Papers (Mss. 65 Sk3), which lists the titles of several books Lady Jean Skipwith purchased in 1785.

The Skipwith papers are exciting for a number of reasons. First, the Skipwiths were one of a very few American families who held British titles and kept those titles after the American Revolution. Second, in an age where collecting a large personal library was seen as more of a man’s endeavor, Lady Jean did much of the family’s book collecting. Furthermore, she recorded her collection of novels, which her male peers often considered frivolous and unworthy of record. Finally, Lady Jean’s family valued her library; subsequent generations preserved and enlarged it. The Skipwith family library records are thus a valuable insight into both women’s reading and the evolution of reading tastes from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.

A handwritten manuscript page listing expenses made by the Skipwiths. Included on this document is a copy of "Dictionary of Arts" purchased.
This receipt shows some books Lady Jean Skipwith purchased as a young woman. It includes several plays and a cookbook.

Books in Lady Jean’s lifetime (from the late 1700s to early 1800s) were expensive and many Americans could not read. Among those who could read and could afford books, rural Virginians faced additional challenges purchasing them. They might have to ride many hours to a town with from a bookstore; if the store did not have what they wanted, those books would have to be ordered—from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or even London! It could take weeks or months to get books, which might arrive damaged from travel. Despite this, Lady Jean and many other Virginians amassed sizable libraries, a testament to how much they valued reading both for education and for pleasure.   

Modern Americans have many more options both for what and how they read. There are books for different age groups, genres for every taste, and copies in print or digital form. New forms of mass media, like audiobooks and vlogs, make it possible to share information verbally. All of these innovations make sharing of information easier than it was in Lady Jean’s lifetime. But future historians will still need records of what you read, what you watch, and what you think about it to tell your story well. Do you save your receipts, journal, or keep copies of your online reviews and comments?

Special Collections’ hard work and generous support makes research like mine possible. It also provides a home for things modern Virginians, including you, might one day want to pass down to future generations. If you’d like to learn more about what early Virginians liked to read and see some of their books in person, be sure to visit!

A lined page from a manuscript volume, which lists "Books on History" found in the Skipwith family library. The left margin of the page serves to enumerate each entry. Titles of books are provided in quotation marks, followed by (presumably) the author's last name. Examples of titles mentioned include "Irish Revolutionary History & Literature" and "Histoire de France".
This list by a later member of the Skipwith family (circa 1901) shows some of the history books in the family library.

References and More to Explore:

Finding aid for the Skipwith Family Papers (Mss. 65 Sk3) in the Special Collections Research Center's database.

Finding aid for the Robert Skipwith Diaries (Mss. 65 Sk4), circa 1834-1898, in the Special Collections Research Center's database.

Library catalog entries for the volumes in The Skipwith Family Library, housed in the Special Collections Research Center.

Learn more about Prestwould, the home of Sir Peyton and Lady Jean Skipwith in Clarksville, Virginia.