What was inside the first Canadian branch building?
By Thorin Tritter
I wrote before about the picture that serves as the cover for the chapter on Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in Volume 3 of the newly published History of Oxford University Press. I personally enjoy looking at this type of picture and trying to imagine what went on inside. In the case of this building, we do have another photograph, published in a booklet produced on the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Branch in 2004, which captures the showroom on the ground floor of this building. Perhaps not surprisingly, tables covered with books fill most of the room, with bookcases lining the walls. One other document adds a bit more detail to the picture. Early in the morning on Wednesday, 27 December 1905, a fire broke out in the building. Nobody was hurt in the fire, but there was extensive damage to the offices. Luckily for the Press, the branch had secured fire insurance, and in the detailed claim they submitted we can find a bit more about what was inside the building.
Not surprisingly, by far the most valuable items on the first floor were more than $46,000 (Canadian) worth of books. Fifteen tables, six desks, two counters, and a showcase are also listed, much as you would expect in a showroom. More interesting to me are the smaller items. The rug in S.B. Gundy’s office — the branch manager — was valued at $49.76, almost equal to two oak desks valued at $50. Electric light fixtures accounted for a bit more money ($60), but the claim also included a hat rack ($2.85) and rubber stamps ($8.25). One typewriter desk ($50) and one typewriter copy stand ($3.50) are also included, although apparently the typewriter survived the fire. Two other items, one expensive and one relatively small, struck me. The single most expensive item of furniture is “1 Iron Safe, paint scorched.” Nothing is mentioned of what was in the safe, or if that survived, but at $128.00 this was a notable item in the office. Finally a claim for $7.45 for “Card Index Cabinet” might seem relatively insignificant, but in a pre-computer world where data was kept on index cards, I have no doubt that each card — recording customer information or book orders — was a highly valuable item to the business. Overall, nothing on the list is surprising, but all the items remind us that bookselling in the early 20th century was all about paper and wood — both highly flammable.
Thorin Tritter taught history and American studies for six years at Princeton University. He has directed the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s History Scholars program since its inception in 2003 and currently is the managing director of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.
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