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Bay Psalm Book, 1640

This is an edited  reposting from our sister site Bookride first posted in June 2007. Sotheby's NY is selling a copy in November 2013 and expecting $30 million. It is about to go on a tour of America. Sadly our archive does not have a copy although it is worth noting that the same printing press (shipped over by the pilgrims) also produced some ephemera...

"...we have therefore done our endeavor to make a plain and familiar translation of the psalms and words of David into English metre, and have not so much as presumed to paraphrase to give the sense of his meaning in other words; we have therefore attended herein as our chief guide the original, shunning all additions, except such as even the best translators of them in prose supply, avoiding all material detractions from words or sense." From the introduction to the Bay Psalm Book, 1640.

THE WHOLE BOOKE OF PSALMES. Faithfully translated into English Metre. (The Bay Psalm Book.) [Cambridge, Mass.] : Imprinted by S. Daye, 1640. Compiled and translated by John Cotton; Richard Mather; John Eliot; Thomas Weld; Stephen Day; Matthew Day; Adrian Van Sinderen.

The Bay Psalm Book was the common hymnal of the Massachusetts Bay colony. An American icon, a piece of heroic history - it was both the first book printed in the Colonies and it was also the first book entirely written in the Colonies. Printed 20 years after the first arrivals in Plymouth in 1620 on the first printing press in New England which was purchased and imported from London specifically to print this book. In 1639 the press printed first the Freeman’s Oath and then an almanac, no copies of which are extant. The mind boggles at the value that could be attached to these.

The translations were prepared by a committee of approximately thirty clergymen, including Richard Mather, John Eliot, and Thomas Weld. The preface is generally attributed to Mather, although some scholars believe it was written by John Cotton. The book went through several editions and was in use for well over 100 years. Later editions had tunes and music which are not to be found in the first edition.

The poetry of the versifications in the first edition is often crude and awkward, but the writers considered faithfulness to the scriptures to be more important than poetic elegance. In spite of this, the Bay Psalm Book achieved considerable recognition in its time, a recognition that went well outside of New England, and even the Colonies. Copies reached both England and Scotland and saw some use there.

VALUE? Unless someone finds 'Love's Labour's Won' - the supposedly published, but never found, Shakepeare play - this is the most valuable printed book in the world. Almost impossibly rare but as Cadillac Jack said: 'Anything can be anywhere.' It is said that there are only about a dozen copies in existence, 2 of which are in private hands. There have been no copies in auction in the last 50 years, however one can get a vague fix on the price from the record of the sale of a copy in 1947. It was a perfect copy of 'the first edition of this little book' and was sold at public auction in New York City. It was bought, on behalf of Yale University, for the sum of $151,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a book at public auction.

A copy in the amazing Brinley sale of Americana in 1879, another fine copy, again noted as 'this small book' made $1200. Another copy turned up in a bookseller's catalogue around 1900 described thus:

A BEAUTIFUL and ABSOLUTELY PERFECT copy; having the additional page of “Faults escaped in printing.” The binding---one of Mr. F. BEDFORD’S master-pieces---is in dark brown crushed levant morocco, the sides studded with gold stars, within broad gilt borders, with corner and center ornaments; and the volume is enclosed in a Solander case of blue, straight-grained morocco, lettered.

There is even a record of a copy bought in a bookshop in this catalogue entry (by Rosenbach?):

To offer any remarks on the RARITY or the IMPORTANCE of this precious volume would be sheer impertinence. The acquisition of a copy of the original edition of the Bay Psalm Book must always be the crowning triumph to which every American collector aspires,---while the chances of acquisition are constantly diminishing. It is by no means probable that another copy will be offered for competition within the next quarter of a century, at least.

Laid into the copy is a letter by Bishop Hurst, its former owner, in which he says: “I purchased it [this volume] on August 25, 1892, from the Burnham Antique Book Store, Boston, Mass. It was purchased by the late Mr. Burnham about twenty years previous (about 1872), probably from a lady. Mr. Burnham at the time did not know exactly what the book was. Mr. R. C. Lichtenstein (who was with Mr. Burnham then) compared it with the copies in the Boston Public Library and discovered that it was a genuine copy of the original (1640) edition.”

It is hard to extrapolate from $151,000 in 1947 but you could probably buy a good size block of flats in a decent part of New York at that time.

There have been at least 2 bibliomysteries featuring the book --The Bay Psalm Book Murders by Will Harris (1983) and The Collectors (2006) a great piece of hokum featuring some downy old birds calling themselves the Camel Club. Jonathan Dehaven, the director of the Library of Congress' Rare Books and Special Collections Section is found dead under suspicious circumstances. A copy of the 1640 Bay Psalm book is found among his own rare book collection at his posh house...The book also features a dodgy rare book dealer, wily collectors and librarians.

A copy also appears in The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl (Detective Comics #359, 1967). In this story, Barbara Gordon (a librarian) is delivering the book to Bruce Wayne, when she discovers him apparently murdered by Killer Moth.

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