The Collection


In his fifty year career as a collector, Mr. Posner shaped two different collections around two different interests. The first collection, assembled mostly between 1924 and 1955, served his interests in fine bindings, books about fine arts and books for the family's reading. These comprise about 200 of the titles in his collection. Later, between 1955 and 1972, his focus changed to books illustrating landmarks in intellectual history, espcially in the natural sciences where his son, Henry Jr., was at that time deeply involved. At times he focused only on one of his interests and at other times he purchased for both, but he never moved away from these two areas.

He started collecting books in 1924, first acquiring fine literature in handsome reading copies. He made several batch purchases of Limited Editions Club titles in the 1940s. He and Mrs. Posner traveled widely and collected small precious artwork on their travels. Many titles in the collection purchased in this early phase are related to this artwork, including books about ivories, oriental carpets, Japanese artifacts and Chinese paintings.

His finely bound books all provide special pleasure because of their joyfully exuberant bindings. The best examples are copies of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard with diamonds on the cover, Washington Irving's 1849 Sketchbook and FitzGerald's translation of Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát with snakeskin and rubies. The bindings were executed with the highest craftsmanship by the firm of Sangorski and Sutcliffe of England who used colored leather inlays, rubies, garnets and diamonds, and gold-tooling of utmost intricacy.

One theme evident in the leisure reading purchased in the early phase of Mr. Posner's collecting might be described as "arm-chair traveling". Fantastic itineraries were provided by the Limited Editions Club issues of The Travels of Baron Munchhausen (1929), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1941), Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1962), and Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

As a keen traveler, Mr. Posner appreciated how real discoveries and voyages are exciting, despite the drudgery and danger of exploration. The Posner Memorial Collection includes accounts of famous travels such as the 1494 printing of Christopher Columbus's famous letter about his first trip to the New World. Other voyages represented are Captain William Bligh's 1790 Narrative of the Mutiny on Board the Bounty and his long Voyage to the South Sea (1792), Fitzroy's Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of the Beagle (1839), and three handsome folios containing Vancouver's Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific (1798).

In 1955, Mr. Posner began to focus his collecting on landmarks of science as a result of Mr. H.P. Kraus cannily giving Mr. Posner a copy of Bern Dibner's Heralds of Science. Dibner, a retired businessman and founder of the Burndy Library for the History of Science in Norwalk, Connecticut, selected and described the 200 most important contributions to the physical and natural sciences since the beginning of printing. The book excited Mr. Posner and influenced the shift in his collecting interests. The second phase of his collecting, from 1955 to 1973, is documented by records for the acquisition of 236 titles that were collected to highlight major achievements in science, economics and philosophy. Henry Posner and Bern Dibner became friends and visited each other on many occasions. Mr. Posner expressed his respect for Bern Dibner in a letter to him on August 6, 1971:

"Dear Bern: I have a special place in my library for the books I enjoy most, they are authored by George Sarton and Bern Dibner, I read them over and over again for sheer pleasure."


On the same day, he wrote to Mrs. Matthysee of the Burndy Library:

"His [Dibner's] 'Heralds of Science,' originally given to me by H.P. Kraus, has been my guide in collecting books on science."


As the focus of his collecting shifted, Mr. Posner began to alert more dealers abroad about his interests. The change in evident in a letter to Mr. Willy Heimena of Sandbergs Bokhandel in Stockholm, February 29, 1960:

"My principal interest is in the first issues of original scientific publications including astronomy, mathematics, geology, geography, medicine, law, political economy (I have Grotius, Malthus, Ricardo, Marx-Manifesto, Das Kapital). I have some works on botanical subjects but no Linnaeus."


Seminal works or especially scarce items appealed to Mr. Posner. Some book dealers, knowing Mr. Posner's interests, bluntly appealed first to that element of his collecting canon, sometimes not bothering to describe the intrinsic intellectual value of a title. In a letter of April 29, 1964, F. Thomas Heller wrote to Mr. Posner concerning Virchow's Cellular Pathölogie:

"The book is one of the greatest scientific classics, and one of the Grolier Hundred, among the 'Epochal Achievements' listed by H.M. Evans, and was included in the great Earls Court Exhibit."


Heller had listed this title in his Catalogue 113, January 1964, and Mr. Posner placed an order, but the item was already sold. The copy offered in April was considerably higher in price, and several letters were exchanged in negotiating the figure. On May 16th, Mr. Heller wrote:

"Much to my regret I won't be able to reduce the price of the Virchow…since, as I pointed out in my previous letter my cost price is higher. I should like to point out however, that, this being a Grolier item it is bound to fetch considerably higher prices in the future, especially so when Mr. Horblit's long awaited catalogue will be published."


Mr. Posner purchased the Virchow on May 28th. Heller proved to be right as Mr. Posner's collecting records indicate Heller advertised a similar copy in 1973 at three times the price Mr. Posner paid in 1964.

Mr. Posner was also interested in the rarity of a title and any interesting provenance it may have had. He was especially intrigued with the scarcity of the Bill of Rights. His copy was authenticated by H.P. Kraus and the Library of Congress as one of the special printing sent to the nation's thirteen governors by Jefferson in 1792. Only one other copy was known at the time Mr. Posner purchased it in 1963. He continued to research the scarcity of the first printed edition of the Bill of Rights and in 1971 identified another copy in the State of Maryland, Hall of Records, and obtained photocopies to compare with his copy.

A good working collection contains supporting works. The book dealers who worked with Mr. Posner encouraged him to augment his collection with major reference works. Cornerstone works include his annotated copies of George Sarton's Guide to the History of Science (1952), Thornton's Scientific Books, Libraries and Collectors (1954), and Tooley's Maps and Map-makers (1962), in addition to many other bibliographies of specific authors and catalogs of important collections of scientific literature. These basic texts explain the significance of the books in the Posner collection. From Tooley, Mr. Posner learned about Ptolemy's Cosmographia (1475) and his Geographie (1513), which has the first colored map as well as early maps of the New World.

Throughout the centuries, men have held different conceptions of the moon and the earth, the solar system and the universe and man's place in the universe. The collection features representative examples of these conceptions, such as Copernicus's De Revolutionibus (1543), Newton's Principia (1687), Regiomontanus's 1499 Kalendarium handbook with movable parts, Halley's Astronomiae Cometicae Synoposis ( 1705), Hevelius on Selenographia (1647), or Robert Goddard's A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes (1919). These record the astronomical observations and the development of mathematical systems that led to the space program and enabled scientists and engineers to land a man on the moon.

With books such as Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 Exploration of Space, the Posner Collection illustrates an important point about book collecting: In a collection that is focused and planned, not every item will be rare or scarce. Mr. Posner assembled a small but significant collection in 1969 about the United States's space program and the Apollo Lunar Landing. It includes a comprehensive scrapbook of newspaper and journal articles about the space program. Mr. Posner also obtained National Aeronautics and Space Administration booklets, maps and charts. By comparing scientific contributions documented in the early landmarks of astronomy with the accomplishments of the space program we gain a deeper appreciation for both.




Special Collections

Carnegie Mellon University Libraries