In 1815, Thomas Jefferson "ceded" (he never used the word "sold" when referring to the transaction) his extensive personal library to the United States government to replace the holdings in the Capitol that were burned by the British in 1814. His collection of nearly seven thousand titles was perhaps the finest in the country and later it became the foundation of the Library of Congress.
To transport the large collection to Washington, the books traveled in their own special shelves that had housed them at Monticello, for Jefferson believed there were no better packing boxes.1 He wrote in 1815:
The books stand at present in pine cases with backs and shelves, without fronts. the Cases are generally of three tier, one upon another, about 9. feet high in the whole. the lowest case is generally 13. Inches deep, the 2d 6¾ I. and the uppermost 5¾ I. averaging together 8½ I. to which add ¾ I. for the front of boards to be nailed on, and it makes an average depth of 9¼ I. I have measured the surface of wall which these cases cover, and find it to be 855. square feet..."2
The shelves were taken down with the books still in them, waste paper was stuffed into spaces to secure the volumes, and boards were nailed across the front to prepare them for the journey that would involve ten wagons.
The origin of the portable book boxes is not known. There is no documentary evidence that Jefferson designed them, yet their special features would have certainly assisted him in organizing, maintaining and transporting his huge library. Each case comprised three specific dimensions to accommodate different sizes of books, from smallest to largest: duodecimos, octavos, and quartos and folios. The bookcases consisted of boxes arranged in three tiers. It is not known if there were eight independent boxes (a total of eight boxes per unit), or whether the cases were stacked in three units, each tier being a single piece.
The set of six bookcases (five in the Library, one in the South Square Room) currently on display at Monticello were made in 1959 to recreate the original presses. They are constructed of eight separate boxes per bookcase. The specifications were carefully drawn up after compiling all written evidence as well as measuring remaining volumes from the Jefferson library at the Library of Congress. The reproductions were made from pine, as Jefferson's original boxes were.
- Elizabeth L. O'Leary, November 1988
Primary Source References
1791 January 11. "Pd. Long for a double book press £7."3
1791 January 15. "Long for racks and cross pieces to paper press 2.D."4
1791 December 19. "Gave Carstairs ord. on bank for 111.64 D. in full for book presses and other work."5
1794 January 2. "Recd. from James Wilson for book shelves 91.73."6
1793 April 17. (Jefferson to James Wilson). "TTh: Jefferson presents his compliments to Mr. Wilson. He omitted to observe to him on the subject of his bookshelves that whenever he has occasion to remove them from one room to another, or one house to another, they may be taken to peices and put together again the whole of them in half an hour, as there is not a single nail, screw, nor glue used in putting them together. Carstairs, who knows their construction, would be the best person to employ in doing it. He states below, according to his desire, a note of their cost extracted from Long’s and Carstair’s bills. He has not noted the articles of locks, hinges, cloth-covering for one peice &c. which were not worth hunting up."7