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Elcey Wilcox’s Very Rare Version of William Cowper’s Poems

My son is getting married on June 13 and I have three children in college with a fourth on the way, so I’ve had to realign my priorities. Consequently, I am selling my books.

Not all of them, of course. But I have some old books that I can’t justify sitting on my shelves looking beautiful when I have to pay my kid’s college bills – and so on. You know the story.

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve got this three volume set of William Cowper’s (pronounced Cooper’s) poems, published in 1833 and given


of the application and success of

(beautifully inscribed) Miss Elcey Wilcox
in the 2nd Class Geography



(blank line) Mother Superior

July 1st, 1836

It seems Elcey was a succesful student at ST. Joseph’s Mother House of the Sisters of Charity and Academy for Young Ladies in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Oh how I would love to know the story behind this set!

You may remember William Cowper from his most famous line, “God works in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform. That’s included in these three volumes.

They’re hard-back books, a rather simple design I think, though age has dignified them. No pictures are included. The bindings are holding together OK. Elcey seems to have inscribed her name inside the front cover of the second volume. That’s interesting to me. Why not the first? Did she not like it? Was she just idling time away when she inscribed it? She only included her first initial. Does this mean she was unorganized and hurried. Maybe it was an afterthought.

She must have had some internal conflict. Some part of her didn’t want to be troubled with inscribing them at all, but something told her she should. She wasn’t being supervised, at least not carefully, because if she had the supervisor would have insisted that she inscribe the first volume.

She was young when she did it, or else rather old, because the inscription is written in a diffident hand. The only other markings in the second volume are found inside the back cover, where she (or somebody – the hand is similar but I can’t establish likeness) flipped the book over so the binding remained to the left and ran a quick calculation (I say quick because there are no carrying notes and because some of the numbers are hurriedly written), subtracting 2.88 from 6.26 and then removing another .50 from the 3.88 in the middle. She ended up with $3.38. I note that it was pecuniary because when she reached the end she inserted something that seems to resemble our dollar sign, two vertical lines with, in this case, something like a ring around them, rather than an S.

In 1836 Boston that seems to me a rather significant amount of money for a child in a girl’s school, second class geography (by the way, in the testimonial inserted in the first volume, somebody added by hand the symbol “2nd” above premium. Clearly, Elcey was a sound geography student.

I believe we are looking on the proud achievement of an eighth grade girl from 1836, and I suspect that the calculation was added when she was in 11th grade, at just that point in life when a child condescends proudly on their earlier achievements and both notes them and dismisses them at the same time. She was, I think, planning an event such as a prom, and was calculating how much money she would have for some third desirable. Might the dress have cost nearly three hard to come by dollars? I mean hard to come by for the age, of course, for I suspect Elcey was a more or less well brought up child in a well to do family.

Her writing lacks both the focus of the altogether proper and the anger of the neglected.

We now come to the third volume, to which our Elcey seems to have devoted slightly more neglectful attention, for within its front cover she has not only inscribed her name, she has practiced writing it. She was of an age to be learning something like Spencerian penmanship, though was not too far along yet for she was still halting in its application. I could investigate this, but I think I must adjust my estimate downward slightly and suggest that in fact our dear Elcey Wilcox was in sixth grade when she triumphed over her classmates for the second consecutive year in geography. She wanted, then, to inscribe the books, but, as she was only just learning to do so, she chose to start with the third volume.

No doubt she had a practice pad beside her, as the first attempt was something of a failure, her c and e conflating into a c-eating e. At that point she returned to her practice pad, possibly putting some sort of tracing material over the book’s paper. There is evidence of a second faint pencil attempt, with great emphasis on the E in her Christian name. The viewer finds it difficult to distinguish whether the markings are engraved into the paper by a sharp point or whether they include some pencil lead. Working down the page, there are the slightest hints that Elcey continued to practice on something placed over the book page itself.

Finally she returned for a third try, writing her first name with a curled “y”, not satisfied so writing her first name with an uncurled “y” and then adding her last name with the age’s elegance. She is practicing and experimenting, trying to find the Elcey that reveals her to the world as she wishes to be seen. I hope that her teachers allowed for this experimentation and search and I hope Elcey went with the second “y” – which was much more elegant than the first, underscoring her whole name and leaving room for energy to move.

Then we turn the book sideways and we discover that miss Elcey has an acquaintance., for here we read in a light and confident hand, “Miss Sarah.” A quarter of an inch below the Sarah of Miss Sarah we read in that same steady hand, “Miss Wilcox.” I note that this new hand has joined the l and the c in Wilcox that Miss Elcy had separated. Turning to the second volume, which we had perused earlier, I note that Elcey has joined the l and the c as well, but it is forced upon it with a horizontal line, rather than naturally flowing from the l in the “Sarah” version.

I conclude, therefore, that Miss Sarah is a friend of Elcey’s, or maybe an older sister, and that she was, at some point, helping Elcey, not so much with her handwriting as with her signature and thus her identity. It’s too intimate a transaction for it to be a teacher and too informal to be a parent. I do not believe Sarah was involved in the financial calculation, because the hand there is entirely practical (pressing heavily into the page, indifferent to form, etc.).

But here is an important realization. The reason that Elcey did not inscribe the first volume is because there was no need to do so. Her name is inscribed on the testimony to her diligence. Elcey Wilcox, therefore, has secured her property rights over these books for as long as she lives or until she passes them on to another.

And she must have valued these books and the recognition they implied, for they are nearly 200 years old now and were preserved not only by Elcey but also by anybody else who has possessed them since then.

I have been able to find evidence of only one other set of this printing (Boston, 1833, Water Street Bookstore) and that is in the New York Public Library where it has been stamped all over with property of library stamps. I conclude therefore that this is an extremely rare printing, made even more rare and valuable by the excellence of our friend Elcey Wilcox.

I suppose I could also praise the excellence of William Cowper’s poems, but that would distract from my friend Elcey’s glory. I’m going to go on line and see what I can learn about her. I bet it’s quite a story.

But if you are interested in this set of very rare books, and want to secure them before I put them up for bidding, let me know. I judge them to be worth about $300, but I haven’t finished my research yet.

On the other hand, if you’d like to sponsor the effort of me turning this investigation into a novel, let’s talk!

By the way, one of the poems is about 18th century education, and in it Cowper makes an extended plea for home education.

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