Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: William Spohn Baker (1824-1897)

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, Short Biography, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

by William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
May 6, 2016

Modern documentary editors benefit enormously from ready access to electronic databases that allow nearly instantaneous immersion into an ocean of primary and secondary sources. Much of what we find and exploit was the work of our scholarly forebears, many of whom were not professional historians. I wish to honor some of these easily overlooked and unfortunately forgotten individuals in a series of contributions to Washington’s Quill over the next year or so. A person’s influence on current editing at the Washington Papers will be my major selection principle.

A sketch of William S. Baker as published in his obituary in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Sept. 10, 1897.

My first subject is William Spohn Baker (1824-1897), a Philadelphia title examiner who amassed an extraordinary collection of printed and artistic materials related to George Washington that allowed him to publish several noteworthy books on the great historical figure. Baker’s father served as an artillery lieutenant in the War of 1812 and spent several years in the Pennsylvania legislature. His apparent success afforded his son a private-school education and a prosperous career in real estate. William Spohn Baker retired in 1860 and devoted himself to Washington research, collecting, and publications. His obituary listed his Washington-related volumes at “about 500, together with about 1000 engravings, principally portraits, and 900 medals.”1

Baker’s books on George Washington remain significant because he aggregated into logical arrangements widely scattered items or pieces of information. His earliest and arguably most discussed—and now most valued as a collectible—was The Engraved Portraits of Washington, with Notices of the Originals and Brief Biographical Sketches of the Painters (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Baker, 1880). Other notable books followed, including:

  • Bibliotheca Washingtoniana: A Descriptive List of the Biographies and Biographical Sketches of George Washington (Philadelphia: Robert M. Lindsay, 1889)
  • Itinerary of General Washington from June 15, 1775, to December 23, 1783 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1892)
  • Early Sketches of George Washington: Reprinted with Biographical and Bibliographical Notes (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1894)
  • Washington After the Revolution: MDCCLXXXIV-MDCCXCIX (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1898)

Rather limited print runs restricted the number of people who could own these books. The desirable first edition of Engraved Portraits of Washington ran 500 copies. The oversized and handsomely printed Washington bibliography volume numbered only 400 copies, and the extremely handy Early Sketches of George Washington totaled an even fewer 250 copies. Baker apparently offset availability issues by making sure that his works found their way into historical societies and libraries where a single copy could enjoy extensive circulation. For instance, he inscribed presentation copies of Bibliotheca Washingtoniana and Early Sketches to the New Jersey Historical Society.

An image of one of William S. Baker’s inscriptions.

I am sure that Baker never thought that institutions would deaccession those books something more than a century later under pressure from troubled finances and changing understanding of mission and audience. The beneficiary of those unforeseen circumstances was me. I purchased Baker’s inscribed volumes from Zubal Books in Cleveland, Ohio, not long after I started as an editor with the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. The volumes have proven both useful and inspiring.

An image of the title page for the Itinerary of George Washington, published in 1892 by J.B. Lippincott.

I also own Baker’s Itinerary of George Washington and his Washington After the Revolution, both purchased at the wondrous semi-annual used book sale sponsored in Charlottesville by the Friends of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. The posthumously published After the Revolution volume came with the bonus of two manuscript letters written to Ferdinand J. Dreer (1812-1902), the legendary Philadelphia autograph collector who acquired that status after retiring from a profitable career as an assayer and jeweler in 1863. One letter is from Baker, who apologetically wrote on May 28, 1894, that he retained none of the correspondence with engravers and could not help Dreer extra-illustrate a “copy of ‘American Engravers.'” The other letter is from Baker’s son-in-law Henry Whelan, Jr., presenting Dreer with the volume because the deceased man “always spoke of” his fellow Philadelphian “in such high terms that I am sure it would have been his wish.” I have no idea how this volume with its tipped-in letters traveled from Dreer to the Gordon Avenue Library in Charlottesville, but I am glad that it made the journey.

Itinerary of General Washington and Washington After the Revolution stand as predecessors of “George Washington, Day-By-Day, 22 February 1732-14 December 1799,” a digital humanities project launched in 2015 with financial support from the Jefferson Trust at the University of Virginia. Unlike Baker, who hit all the high points but skipped over less prominent stretches, “Day-By-Day” aspires to comment on Washington’s location, activities, and thoughts on every day of his life by drawing on the modern Papers of George Washington edition produced at the University of Virginia and using all the analytical and archival tools at the disposal of contemporary scholars. The website is now in the process of transition to Mount Vernon, where it is hoped the vision for the “Day-By-Day” project will be fulfilled and even expanded.

Baker and his friend Dreer, each a pillar in Philadelphia civic life, both left their magnificent collections with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where the holdings remain for research purposes. Knowing the scale and value of Baker’s donation of Washington materials and his importance in placing the historical society on sound footing, it shocked me when I asked a librarian at that institution about Baker a few years ago and received the answer that he knew nothing. William Spohn Baker promoted serious study of George Washington during the later-nineteenth century and started a wave of scholarly and popular work that pretty much continues to the present. He also buoyed the intellectual and cultural life of an entire city. Baker deserves far better than being forgotten!


All photographs by William M. Ferraro, unless otherwise noted.

1. Philadelphia Public Ledger, Sept. 10, 1897.


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