As this year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses and along with it, the beginning of the Reformation, a blog post on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Reformation collection is in order.1
Our collections in this area became prominent in 1977 when the library acquired the books and pamphlets collected by the Swiss writer Emanuel Stickelberger (1884-1962). Stickelberger’s collection contained 850 titles, 516 of which were printed before 1531. Within this group are a collection of 180 pamphlets written by Luther, making it one of the largest early Reformation collections formed by a private collector in the 20th century. The Folger library purchased the collection through the Swiss firm of Erasmushaus Haus des Bücher, located in the house of the 16th century printer Johann Froben, where Erasmus lived and worked while in Basel. The Folger’s acquisition was announced in several newspapers including in the Washington Post, which declared that “the Folger Library ha[d] become a premier center for Reformation studies, adding a new dimension to Washington’s cultural resources.”2
Stickelberger had worked as a chemical engineer before turning to the writing of books at the end of the First World War (his experiences in the War being one of the likely reasons why he then chose a different career path). His desire to get his Protestant fellows to know better the early figures of the Reformation movement seems to have been his main motivation for writing historical fictions, short stories, and historical plays on early German and Swiss reformers.3 His book on the artist Hans Holbein the Younger, on the other hand, was probably motivated by his family tie to the artist. It is unknown when Stickelberger started collecting Reformation pamphlets but it is clear that his collection and his writings informed each other. His books often included quotes from texts, which he likely owned in their original edition.
In addition to Reformation literature, Stickelberger collected Swiss imprints and 17th– and 18th-century German literature. In 1944, he founded the Swiss bibliophile society named after Sebastian Brant’s Stultifera Navis or the Nave of Fools. The Swiss writer was certainly a bibliophile when it came to the binding of his books. While several of them are bound by contemporary Swiss binders such as the book binder Hans Asper:
Stickelberger had the majority of his pamphlets rebound in quarter vellum over marbled paper boards
or over leaves from incunables.
Overall, few books in this collection are in contemporary early bindings. One should certainly feel sorry for the absence of early provenance marks on many Stickelberger bindings but one should also note that most pamphlets—especially those written by Luther—had probably been already rebound in the 19th century. The Stickelberger bindings document another period of the life of these books and the tastes of bibliophiles in the first part of the 20th century. Stickelberger’s sister, who rebound the majority of the books, must also have been responsible for the calligraphic inscriptions and drawings on the spines of these books.
While Erasmushaus Haus des Bücher was instrumental in offering the Stickelberger collection to the Folger, within the library it was the Acquisitions Librarian, Elizabeth Niemyer, who played a central role in working through the acquisition of the collection, having realized its importance and relevance to other Folger collections especially for the study of the English Reformation. With her staff, Niemyer searched all of the 850 titles for sale to find out the number of duplicates. With the Folger director O.B. Hardison, Jr., she applied and was successful in receiving several grants that assisted with the funding of this very large purchase. In the end, only 80 imprints in German and 20 in other vernacular languages were found to already be in the collections; the Stickelberger copies of these duplicates were sold later on.
Two decades earlier, in 1958, the library had acquired another formidable Reformation collection of 150 Luther sermons owned by the great English collector Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872). Phillips, similarly to Stickelberger, had his pamphlets rebound in simple cloth and marble paper bindings over board with paper labels.
With the acquisition of the Stickelberger collection, the total number of pre-1546 Luther imprints at the Folger raised to 300, about two-third of the total number of Luther’s publications produced during his life time.4
In addition to Luther pamphlets, the Folger’s collection includes the texts of other important reformers: the writings of Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich von Hutten, Johann Oecolampadius, and of course Jean Calvin and Philip Melanchton are especially well represented. Stickelberger also owned Bibles and Psalters, including a rare copy of the first French Protestant Bible printed in Neuchatel in 1535. While evidence of early provenance cannot be found in this collection on many bindings, the copy of the Neuchatel Bible illustrates the wealth of manuscript notes present in many of Stickelberger’s books: several generations of owners from the same family have inscribed their names in it. While the earliest inscription documents the ownership of this book by a woman, its exquisite calligraphic style contrasts with the style of hand by later owners.
The role of printing in the dissemination of Reformation ideas has been studied in depth. 5 The books in the Stickelberger collection are a case in point, as they clearly show the ripple effect of the successive printings in various towns in Germany, Switzerland and other countries. Beyond their content, the books in this collection are worth examining for their marks:
Although Luther complained about the poor job done by his Wittenberg printer, one has to admire the care with which most of these pamphlets were printed; a tradition, which would disappear in later pamphlet campaigns both on the Continent and in England.
The woodcuts in these pamphlets are extraordinary and worth studying, as the recent exhibition on Luther held in three different venues in this country has made clear. The importance of the Cranach workshop in disseminating portraits of Luther and its role in promoting woodcut title borders cannot be understated. Other significant woodcut artists also contributed to make these books more visually arresting but more work needs to be done on lesser known figures.
In other words, there is much more work needs to be done in this collection. We hope to see you soon to start the exploration.
- See also the blog post “Folger as a Collection of Collections”.
- The Washington Post, Thursday, May 5, 1977
- The Folger Library owns several of Stickelberger’s books, which can be found in the online catalog Hamnet
- This number does not include more recent acquisitions of Luther pamphlets.
- See most recently Andrew Pettegree’s books including Brand Luther: 1517, printing, and the making of the Reformation
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