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Rare Book & Manuscript Library

George A. Plimpton Papers, 1634-1956 

Creator: 
Plimpton, George A (George Arthur), 1855-1936,.
Phys. Desc: 
24 linear feet (58 boxes: 52 document boxes, 2 half document boxes, 1 custom-made box, 2 flat boxes, 1 shoe box; and 2 map drawers)
Call Number: 
MS#1006
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

In his July 1936 obituary, the New York Times described George Arthur Plimpton (13 July 1855-1 July 1936) as an "internationally known publisher and collector, college trustee and philanthropist." As the materials in the George A. Plimpton Papers testify, those four areas of activity dominated Plimpton's public and private lives. Plimpton worked as a publisher for most of his adult life. Graduating in 1873 from Phillips Exeter Academy, he pursued undergraduate studies at Amherst College. An admittedly unexceptional student, Plimpton graduated from Amherst in 1876 before studying law at Harvard University for one year. The summer before enrolling at Harvard, Plimpton sold textbooks on commission for Ginn and Heath, a Boston-based publishing firm known for their emphasis on classics as well as their attractive layouts and illustrations. Plimpton had made the acquaintance of company founder Edwin Ginn (1838-1914) through Melvil(le) Dewey (1851-1931), an Amherst alumnus (class of 1874) who advocated for the use of the metric system and had devised an innovative decimal system for cataloguing library materials. Dewey temporarily had given Ginn exclusive publishing rights to both sets of materials. After leaving Harvard in 1877, Plimpton considered teaching history and political science but ultimately took a permanent job offer from Ginn. Plimpton rose to junior partner status by 1881, and when the Amherst-graduate Daniel Collamore Heath (1843-1908) withdrew from the firm in 1885, Plimpton became a founding partner of the rebranded Ginn and Company With Ginn managing the firm's Boston headquarters and Plimpton managing its fledging New York office, Ginn and Company competed with the American Book Company conglomerate throughout the 1890s for status as the leading publisher of schoolbooks in the United States. From at least 1891 on, Edwin Ginn cast the competition as a more than a matter of market share: because an increasingly diverse selection of schoolbooks inevitably would enhance the quality American education, Ginn argued, the American Book Company's monopolistic aspirations threatened American progress. In both his rhetoric and activities, Plimpton displayed similar assumptions about schoolbooks' ameliorative effect on education and society. Plimpton proved a great proponent, for example, of expanding Ginn and Company's business overseas: if schoolbooks could transform American education, the logic went, so too the worlds'. By the end of the nineteenth century, the company sold books in Japan and the Ottoman Empire; in the twentieth century's first two decades, Plimpton helped open up sales channels in such countries as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Philippines, China, and England. These international affairs allowed Plimpton to travel not just in Europe, which he visited almost annually from the early 1880s on, but also in South America and what he termed "the Orient." Plimpton's trips often mixed business with both pleasure as well as his various diplomatic and institutional commitments. Whatever the social benefit of schoolbooks, schoolbook sales produced profits for the partners of Ginn and Company. The concern for profit sometimes ran up against their high-minded assumptions about the books' social benefit: they opposed, for example, a 1912 California amendment that made free textbooks available to primary and grammar schools. But such changes in law ultimately inspired innovation; while the common school movement initially hurt their sales, for example, the company soon worked out textbook adoption contracts with such states as Kansas, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota. By 1910, Edwin Ginn found himself wealthy enough to largely withdraw from business affairs and establish the International School of Peace (later renamed the World Peace Foundation, perhaps to differentiate it from Andrew Carnegie's competing Endowment for International Peace). When the press reported in 1912 that Ginn had donated one million dollars to his world peace initiatives, one partner wrote a memo to the other partners insisting that the company "make every effort to disabuse the public of the notion that this business is largely profit, and not give them the impression...that it is a source of great wealth to those who are engaged in it." Where Ginn became known for spending his fortune on peace work, Plimpton became known above all for his collecting of rare books and manuscripts. His collection centered largely on materials related to the history of education, which he often termed "our tools of learning." This interest serviced Plimpton's professional desire to demonstrate that educational textbooks facilitated social progress not just in the present but also in the past and future. To this end, Plimpton regularly exhibited items from his collection and drew upon the collection to write lectures on the history of education, which he delivered both in the United States and abroad. Plimpton ultimately transformed some of these lectures into two books, The Education of Shakespeare (1933) and The Education of Chaucer (1936). In the preface to the former book, Plimpton described the materials in his collection as "more or less responsible for our present civilization, because they are the books from which the youth of many centuries have received their education." Plimpton also let others make this argument on his behalf. Teachers College's David Eugene Smith (1860-1944), for example, drew upon Plimpton's collection to write Rara Arithmetica (1908), both a history of arithmetic between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as a catalog of Plimpton's books and manuscripts from that period. By the time of his death, Plimpton owned the world's largest private collection of rare textbooks, manuscripts, pictures, and other artifacts and ephemera. The ephemera included a large collection of cigar-store Indians; the artifacts included miniature portraits of historic figures, a collection of presidential autographs, ancient samples of penmanship, over a dozen medieval hornbooks, and documents related to his interests in slavery, the Civil War, and the French and Indian Wars. Yet Plimpton's devoted his time not just to publishing and collecting books but also to an extraordinary range of academic and philanthropic institutions. For most of his life, Plimpton served as a trustee of several educational institutions. His career as a trustee began at Phillips Exeter Academy and Amherst College, the institutions that educated him. Plimpton served as an Amherst trustee beginning in 1895, and he served as president of Amherst's board of trustees beginning in 1907. Committed to the notion that women should receive educations comparable to those of men, Plimpton became treasurer and trustee of Barnard College in 1893, only four years after its founding. He served Barnard for the rest of his life. Drawing upon networking skills honed through his work as a businessman and collector, Plimpton solicited such impressive amounts from the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), and the financier Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) that Edwin Ginn plaintively asked Plimpton in 1913 if Plimpton could "could secure for [the World Peace Foundation] as much as you have secured for Barnard College...What [Carnegie] has done is like a chain around my neck with a millstone hung to it, for the people when I ask for money say, 'Here are the Carnegie millions; why don't you use those?'" Plimpton's work as a trustee led him not only to raise money on schools' behalves but also to donate generously himself; then as now, trustees often earned such positions because of their personal willingness to support the cause. From around 1904 until the end of his life, Plimpton served as a trustee of the American College for Girls at Constantinople in Turkey (also known as the Constantinople Woman's College and, today, Robert College of Istanbul). In this capacity, Plimpton both contributed to and worked on behalf of the college's various building campaigns. A member of the executive committee for Near East Relief, Plimpton's dedication to bringing that region's peoples from "medievalism to modern times" made him loyal to the college even when the First World War made fundraising difficult and the school's prospects rather grim. As with his Near East work, Plimpton's pursuit of good diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan helped earn him a position as trustee to Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. In addition to raising money for the school, Plimpton helped foster ties to Amherst. Construction began on a residence hall named "Amherst House" in 1932. But Plimpton made his greatest financial contributions to schools in the United States. At Phillips Exeter, for instance, he helped fund the purchase of Philips Church and the construction of the Plimpton Playing Fields. As trustee to Union Theological Seminary, Plimpton helped raise money to commission portraits of Union's past presidents and to construct such buildings as McGiffert Hall, Union's Refectory, and its Social Hall. In exchange for his work, he received a degree of input over the appointment of such faculty as Reinhold Niebuhr. At nearby Columbia, Plimpton served not as trustee but as president of the Friends of the Library of Columbia University, a group that his friend David Eugene Smith helped found in 1928. Two years later, Columbia created its Rare Books Department, and Smith and Plimpton soon promised to donate their libraries to it. Beginning in 1932, Plimpton kept his library of nearly 20,000 items on deposit at Low Library, including a Babylonian cuneiform tablet as well as several hundred medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. He formally presented the collection the year before he died. Along with Plimpton’s priceless books and manuscripts came his personal and financial correspondence, business records, writings, personal diaries, and historical documents and artifacts. The latter items compose this particular collection. Plimpton's contributions to Columbia earned him an honorary degree in 1929. By the end of his life he possessed an honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa as well as honorary degrees from the University of Rochester, the University of Richmond, New York University, Amherst, and St. Lawrence University. To Wellesley College, Plimpton donated a collection of over 900 books and manuscripts of Italian literature. Described at the time as containing "first editions of almost every Italian author, especially from the classical period," the collection allowed Wellesley for a time to claim the largest library of any women's college in the United States and to cast itself as the one of the leading centers of Italian renaissance literature in the world. Plimpton delivered the collection in 1904 but began arrangements for the donation four years earlier in the months immediately following the sudden death of his first wife, Frances Taylor Pearsons Plimpton (1862-1900). An 1884 graduate of Wellesley, Frances's interest in Italian literature accounted for the collection's focus. The gift not only enshrined her memory at an institution whose alumnae association she once led but also ensured George Plimpton's continued connection to her alma mater for the rest of his life. Plimpton served as a trustee and treasurer trustee not just to colleges but also to a panoply of other organizations and institutions. Plimpton's commitments generally broke down into four main categories. First, Plimpton's peace and humanitarian commitments included Ginn's World Peace Foundation as well as Andrew Carnegie’s Church Peace Union. Headed by William P. Merrill (1867-1954), the minister of New York's Brick Presbyterian Church who eventually presided at Plimpton's funeral, the Church Peace Union used church institutions to promote the cause of world peace. Plimpton also served as treasurer to the American Poets Ambulances in Italy, as trustee to the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship Through the Churches, and as a member of the American Committee on the Rights of Religious Minorities, and the Near East and Serbian Relief Associations. Finally, Plimpton's interest in political science, history, books, and language made him a patron of such academic organizations as the Historical Societies of Massachusetts and New York, the Grolier Club, the New England Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, the American Antiquarian Society, the New York Academy of Public Education, the American Economic Association, the Modern Language Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He served as treasurer to both the American Philological Association and the American Academy of Political Science; records related to these latter two organizations are located in this collection. Plimpton's interest in academic affairs led him to found the journal Political Science Quarterly in 1886. Ginn and Company published that journal as well as the Yale Review, the Philosophical Review, the Classical Review, and the American Naturalist. Occasionally taking a hands-on approach to intellectual production, Plimpton not only helped found Columbia's department of political science but also wrote the president of John Hopkins in 1902 to ask why Charles Peirce (1839-1914) had taken so long to complete his anticipated book on logic. Plimpton often worked out idiosyncratic agreements with loan recipients and other financial consorts; for example, he agreed to let "Louis, the Greek" sell his wares on the sidewalk near Plimpton's house provided Louis kept the street clean, and he promised to pay two women and their families $50 a month in perpetuity as thanks for caring for his son Francis Taylor Pearsons Plimpton (1900-1983). When the elder Plimpton's first wife Frances died within three days of giving birth to their son, Plimpton's busy schedule had forced him to seek assistance with his son's care. Perhaps because Francis never knew his mother, Plimpton gifted him in 1920 a property located in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Frances's hometown. It was Walpole, not Holyoke, where Plimpton chose to raise Francis. Born and raised in Walpole, a relatively rural town southwest of Boston, Plimpton had grown up on a farm that his family had owned for generations. Yet Plimpton's mother had been forced to sell the farm during his youth after his father's unexpected death in a mill accident. After Francis's birth, Plimpton decided that the farm would provide a much better setting for his child than New York City, and Plimpton accordingly purchased the farm in 1902 from his Uncle David Lewis. Almost immediately Plimpton set about ensuring that Lewis Farm would function not as a "gentleman's farm" but rather as a working farm. He accordingly hired farm managers, purchased such animals as sheep and a peacock, and wrote to Teachers College in 1912 asking for menus that are "nutritious, satisfying, and economical, and provide a varied diet." In addition to extensive correspondence about the farm's purchase and operations, the Plimpton Papers include a complete inventory taken in 1937 of the house and its outbuildings, including Plimpton's exhibit spaces and study. From 1902 on, Plimpton split his time between Walpole, New York, and his travels. But Walpole's affairs became increasingly important to him. Some of his activity in Walpole related to business: in 1927, for example, he bought and renovated an historic tavern that once had served as the halfway house for people traveling from Boston to Providence. And in 1903, Plimpton attempted to sell to Walpole electricity from dams that he owned outside the town. Plimpton tried to lure high-profile visitors to Walpole both for the dedication of the union church as well as for other events. In 1906, for example, he asked then-president Theodore Roosevelt to visit the town for the eightieth birthday of a long-time teacher; in 1924, he asked the bishop of Edinburgh (Scotland), a descendant of Walpole's founder, to visit the town for its 200th anniversary celebration. The extraordinary number of invitations to dinners and ceremonies in Plimpton's papers indicate that he socialized regularly with the wealthy and powerful. But he ultimately drew them to Walpole in large numbers only with his death. Plimpton died at Lewis Farm on 1 July 1936, near the end of his eightieth year. His family buried him there. Plimpton was survived by his second wife, Fanny Hastings Plimpton (d. 1950), whom he married in Bermuda in 1917, his first son Francis, as well as the two children that he and Fanny had together, Calvin Hastings Plimpton (1918-2007) and Emily Plimpton. None of Plimpton's children worked in publishing or became collectors of any significance. But they did follow Plimpton as institutional trustees and philanthropists. In describing Plimpton as a "publisher and collector, college trustee and philanthropist," the New York Times summarized his life's work but misconstrued his legacy. To be sure, both Plimpton's publishing and trustee work made undeniable, if unquantifiable, contributions to American education, and his large and small philanthropic initiatives improved the lives of many both in the United States and abroad. But his ultimate legacy lies in his collecting. In addition to conserving and passing on books and manuscripts of tremendous historic significance, his collector's habits ensured that his own papers, artifacts, and ephemera survive today as a treasure trove of information for economic, cultural, material, social, and religious historians alike.

Scope and Contents

The George A. Plimpton Papers consist largely of personal and professional correspondence, financial and real estate records, personal diaries and albums, writings, and lectures produced by or for George Arthur Plimpton. But the Papers also contains not only the correspondence and records of Plimpton's colleagues at Ginn and Company, the publishing house that Plimpton led for decades, but also correspondence and records relating to the dozens of other institutions and organizations that Plimpton helped lead. In addition to extensive correspondence relating to Plimpton's collecting of rare books, manuscripts, and historical artifacts, the Papers also contain such diverse items as autographs of presidents, handwriting specimens, studies of medieval manuscripts, and documents relating to the American slave trade. The George Arthur Plimpton Papers consist primarily of correspondence relating to Plimpton's personal, financial, organizational, and collecting endeavors, including correspondence addressed to George Plimpton as well as carbon copies of outgoing correspondence. The collection also includes correspondence between members of Ginn and Company that often relate only indirectly to Plimpton himself. Other financial correspondence relates to Plimpton's various property holdings. In addition to decades' worth of Plimpton's personal account books and diaries, the collection contains Plimpton's financial and legal records, including his checkbooks, check stubs, receipts, and wills. Other items include notes, drafts of Plimpton's lectures and essays, family scrapbooks, guestbooks, travel diaries, a small number of family photographs, documents bearing the autographs of United States presidents, historical documents relating to the American slave trade, handwriting specimens, and notes on Plimpton's collection of medieval manuscripts. This collection is arranged in seven series, an arrangement shaped both by the material's themes and by the arrangement of materials when previously archived in the twentieth century. That earlier work organized materials into two main series: catalogued correspondence between Plimpton and persons whom the librarians deemed noteworthy, and uncatalogued correspondence and documents. The current arrangement therefore retains the arrangement of the original series (redesignated Series I-III), but the remainder has been organized into new series (Series IV-VI). While both the previous arrangement of the materials as well as the original folder names have been preserved to the extent possible, material within each series has been grouped under various subheadings and arranged alphabetically.

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