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The Path from a Collector to a Collection
by Arnold Kaplan

Dee and I are well into our collecting journey, which has taken about four decades.  It was a journey that evolved into an attempt to add to the understanding of the Jew in the New World both as Jew and as citizen. Its time frame begins in the sixteenth century with a Jew in Lima, Peru, circa 1550, and the Inquisition in Mexico City in the late 1590s, and takes us up to the period of mass migration around 1890. We are frequently asked to explain our path to developing the collection. I will use this opportunity to dwell on that question.

The Evolution of a Collector

One cannot collect history in any meaningful fashion without a love of history.

That spark was generated in me by my father, Morris Kaplan. Armed with at best an eighth-grade education, he spent many a Sunday at the Carnegie Library/Museum in Pittsburgh reading historical fiction and history books, and visiting the museum. I was in tow.  During our spare time, we also visited locations such as Fort Necessity and Fort Pitt.  By the early 1950s, I was haunting the Carnegie Museum in the hope of becoming a paleontologist or archeologist. To my young mind, these scientists were the ultimate collectors. A leading paleontologist at the museum named Rickenbacker gave me some sage advice. First, he asked, “Do you come from a wealthy family that can support your education and then career?”  The answer was a teenager’s “Nope”; college would only come through scholarships and part-time jobs, I explained. “Well, then,” he said, “I suggest you pursue a career in which you can make a living and have history/collecting as an avocation.” I followed that advice and have never looked back.  When I met my partner of the last fifty-seven years, not surprisingly Dee had a degree in history. We continue to share our love of history.

The Beginnings of a Collection

We raised our family in Eastern Pennsylvania about seventy miles north of Philadelphia.  In the late 1960s, the area was replete with house and farm auctions. It was an ideal location for a young couple that enjoyed collecting and needed to furnish a home. Here we could search out and furnish our home with “used” mid-1800s (and earlier) items that were less expensive than modest “new” home furniture. We subsequently expanded our collecting to include folk art and decorative arts. Added to that was my own interest in American mercantile documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Liking folk art but having a very limited budget, I was intrigued by Pennsylvania German printed Taufscheine (baptismal certificates), which were filled in by itinerant scriveners (oftentimes pack merchants) and colored, usually by a child.  The majority dated from the period between 1830 and 1860. Much to Dee’s chagrin, I began to collect these orphan manuscripts. (That collection now resides in the Allentown Art Museum.)

In the early 1970s, I came across a printed Taufschein, circa 1840. It was sold and filled in by a literate traveling merchant/scrivener at a farmhouse in the area. The certificate was not unusual, except for the fact that the scribe signed his name in cursive Yiddish. To the dealer, the document was just another piece of low-value ephemera.  After some customary haggling, it was mine for about $10. My interest in early American Jewish history had been piqued. So began the long journey of collecting in an arena that Dee and I have shared.

At the time, there was little interest among collectors in early American Judaica except perhaps for iconic pieces of art and important documents. While interesting, the latter were not close to fitting into our budget. I struck upon the idea of collecting material about American Jews in a mercantile environment. These kinds of untapped and low-priced ephemera seemed like a good fit for a young budget-minded collector like me.  I was ill equipped for the task at hand. I had no academic training and certainly no grand plan for any disciplined exploration of American Jewish mercantile history.  My seven years of academic training in engineering and finance did not include one course in history. I look back now and conclude that our collecting and therefore our collection would have taken a very different path if we had had substantial resources at our disposal when we first got started. We are quite satisfied with the path that our collecting did take.

When we started out in the early 1970s, secondary research sources in the field of early American Jewish history were few and far between. The key books of national scope we used numbered only six. The first three were authored by the historian Jacob Rader Marcus: The Colonial American Jew, 1492–1776; Memoirs of American Jews, 1775–1865; and Critical Studies in American Jewish History. Additionally, we consulted Joseph R. Rosenbloom’s Biographical Dictionary of Early American Jews, A. S. W. Rosenbach’s American Jewish Bibliography, and The Hebrews in America by Isaac Markens.  Local Jewish historical publications offered another fruitful source of research information. I also selectively turned to the excellent periodicals published by the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) and the American Jewish Archives (AJA) for articles in my areas of collecting interest. These journals were not on-line in the early 1970s and therefore not easily accessible.

In those early days, I had few skills to determine which research materials were available. The problem was compounded by the fact that we did not live in a major metropolitan area with easy access to a large public library. I started attending book shows in Philadelphia and purchased whatever reference materials I could find. From the early 1970s through the mid-1980s the search was somewhat solitary.

By the early 1980s, this world began to change, as more scholars began publishing in the field (many trained by Jacob Rader Marcus).  My layman’s skills for research also were developing. In the 1990s, the game-changer for the amateur researcher was the advent of the Internet as a search tool. I quickly learned how to tailor it to my needs.

Today, Dee and I enjoy the company of scholars and dealers who generously spend personal time educating us. A continuing source of valuable information is well-researched auction and exhibit catalogues. Our library of reference books houses over four hundred titles, and we are able to search our collection and its multifaceted database by computer.

Defining and Building a Collection: The Search

My friend Sid Lapidus, Co-Chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society and a major American collector, noted in the introduction to the catalogue that accompanied the exhibit of his collection at Princeton in 2009: “From the buyer’s viewpoint, there is a major difference between wanting an item and it being currently offered for sale. No matter the price, one can only buy what is available. Consequently, regardless of intent, collections, even those with a particular focus, are built somewhat haphazardly.”  To that statement I can only say: guilty as charged.

Our collecting began almost exclusively as early morning Sunday trips to Renninger’s Antique Market outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In those days, Renninger’s was a great source for early documents and books freshly arrived from estate sales. Those trips were supplemented by our visits to local paper shows, where dealers would show us their inventories of books and paper. It was rare to find a dealer with Judaica specified in his or her inventory; for the most part, this meant we had to sift laboriously through Americana in the hope of finding early Jewish-related material.  These shows were mostly held in Eastern Pennsylvania.  We also made some forays into New England and New Jersey. It was all done under the radar, and many a great find was made in this way.  We did not visit the great paper and book shows in New York City.  First, these high-visibility shows did not fit our pocketbook; second, they were too intimidating, given my knowledge base. For almost half of the period of our collecting activity, few dealers knew what we were about.

During this period, I stumbled across a Victorian trade card of a Jewish merchant from New York City.  These small advertising cards contain lithographic illustrations ranging from the comical to the highly ornate. They date from the 1870s through the 1890s.  Mainly collected at the time by young ladies, today they are sought after by collectors. As might be expected, the vast majority of these trade cards were not of Jewish-owned businesses, so it was no easy matter to identify the Jewish ones. Dee looked at the cards and decided that the collection should include these cards as a unique window into Jewish businesses of that era. She set about going to the paper shows and searching for other examples. Today the collection houses over 3,500 cards from across the United States. It would be impossible to duplicate this part of the collection.

Slowly we began to find and understand items that were not mercantile in nature but represented American Jews more broadly in family settings, as public servants, as members of the Jewish community, and as individuals. These acquisitions began to expand the focus of our collection.  In the early 1980s, I began to search American auction catalogues to find Judaica gems hidden among their offerings.  At the time, there were few Judaica auctions, and what sold mostly consisted of European Judaic material. As Judaica Americana began to be auctioned more frequently, I started to follow these sales. While we were still under the radar, a few dealers began to know of our interests and would hold items or contact me by phone (email did not yet exist!). I finally steeled my backbone and began to visit the New York paper shows.

In summary, the 1970s through the early 1990s were a golden age for our collection. With hard work, good material could be found at “reasonable” prices.  Most importantly, as the collection grew, the dots began to connect as we recognized interrelationships among the pieces. During that time we never visited a paper show without finding some gems, and most dealers as well as auction catalogues regularly yielded pleasant surprises.  Those years were formative in defining the collection and therefore its content. Around 1990, it became clear that the collection, while always having a strong core of mercantile material, would encompass the full spectrum of primary sources for understanding the Jew in the Americas both as Jew and as citizen. There were just too many dots to connect, and mercantile documents alone simply did not do it.

By the mid-1990s, public interest in collecting American Judaica had grown, and collecting under the radar became an exercise in futility for us.  We also became more visible around this time because Dee and I became associated with the Ezra Consortium of the American Jewish Archives. Later, I joined the Board of the American Jewish Historical Society, where I served as the co-chair of the Society’s Collections Committee. More recently, I also served as a member of the Collections Committee of the National Museum of American Jewish History. All of these associations created numerous opportunities to meet and learn from scholars in our field of interest.  The mid-1990s saw us collecting and looking like any serious, focused collector. Fortunately, our budget had strengthened by then and we found ourselves seeking out more publicized pieces that added to the collection in important ways. Calls offering important material became more commonplace, and the New York paper and book shows were no longer intimidating. And yes, the Internet along with eBay has yielded a surprising amount of valuable material.  Over time, however, we have seen the amount patently diminish.  Gone are the days of great finds at every show and in every catalogue; nonetheless, the hunt goes on, and we continue to find meaningful additions, albeit at a much reduced pace and with commensurately higher prices.

In the early 1990s, I began to use a commercial database for hobbyists to enter each item in the collection.  It was called OYC and ran on DOS (disk operating system). In the year 2000, panic set in when the software maker developed health problems and technical support stopped. I struggled with new entries, fearing the day the system would crash.  As fate would have it, I met Franklin Silverstone at a paper show around 2005. He had an exhibit booth and was trying to interest people in his company’s database, called Collectify. I explained both my problem and the context of our collection to Franklin, and he promised to help in the conversion.  Bear in mind, the cost of Collectify was a once and done fee of less than $200.  True to his word, Franklin put a developer on it, and by the beginning of 2007 our entire collection had been migrated to Collectify’s vibrant platform. When I asked for a bill, he responded that there was none. I cannot overstate the importance of this database for our collection. For me it was an eloquent and indispensable way to connect the dots and organize the material. In short, Collectify helped to coalesce our thinking. In subsequent years, the database has been useful to researchers as well as institutions that wished to borrow items for exhibition.

Our method of collecting is a bit unusual.  When choosing an item for the collection we differ from most serious collectors who are looking at the unique intellectual content of an individual item. Yes, the collection holds many items that are important in their own right; however, others are only important as a subset of the collection as a whole. Take, for example, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American business receipts from Jews.  Viewed individually, they are interesting but offer limited intellectual content.  Gather a thousand of them into one collection and they become a collage for understanding American Jewish mercantile activities. In a like manner, many of the over four hundred letters to and from Isaac Lesser (widely regarded as the most important antebellum American Jewish leader) are mundane; however, taken together they shed light on the world in which he lived in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

We do not use an agent to find or recommend items. From the outset, we have collected on our own. This kind of work is too personal to subcontract. The learning comes from the hunt. That hunt still goes on; it gives us great pleasure to continue to add to the Kaplan Collection at the University of Pennsylvania.

For a Good Deal of Help…Thank You
Building our collection was a somewhat solitary voyage; however, the folks we have met along the way have illuminated our path to knowledge and have made the voyage a joy.   To some, a few words of thanks:

To Roy and Jean Kulp, dealers in Pennsylvania German books and manuscripts: you were the first dealers I remember.  I learned from you, and your patience in allowing me to rummage through your inventory without explaining what I was looking for started me on the path.

Bill Luke, for decades I could count on entering your booth and hearing “Hey, Kaplan, I have some Jewish stuff for you. . . .” Sometimes you were right and sometimes not, but all of the time you were fun.

Tim Hughes, due to your knowledge and hard work, you now are the largest rare newspaper dealer in the world; however, what I most remember are the old days when you allowed me to spend a day in your cellar in rural Pennsylvania, poring through and learning about eighteenth-century newspapers.

Joseph Freedman and his wife are gentle people. Over the years as a dealer he sold me material from his small but important collection of early Philadelphia Judaica.

The auction catalogues of Daniel Kestenbaum are a joy to read, as are the sales catalogues of David Lesser and Irvin Ungar.  Speaking with these gentlemen and discussing items has been a highlight. Daniel spent nearly a year helping us prepare the records for the donation of the collection to Penn.  His efforts were invaluable.

To our friend Gary Zola, the executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College: you were the first scholar who began to understand what we were up to. Your guidance, along with that of Kevin Proffitt, senior archivist for Research & Collections at the American Jewish Archives, has been important over the years.

It was through Gary that we met our now long-time friend Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. Jonathan is the recognized dean of American Jewish history. I still marvel at how Jonathan so promptly responds to my many emails.

Leo Hershkowitz, a scholar in colonial New York City, over the years your personal lectures on early New York Jewry were gems.

A great satisfaction in collecting is the association with collectors who shared their knowledge and the joys of collecting; a special one is Michael Jesselson, an extraordinary collector of American Judaica.  Michael knows how to connect the dots.

We met Jack and Linda Lapidus about thirty years ago; they are the embodiment of the collector-scholar.

And last but not least, I would like to acknowledge my friend and associate at the American Jewish Historical Society, Sid Lapidus. The exhibit of your collection at Princeton was world-class.

To our family and friends whose deep interests do not include American Jewish history, thanks for remaining our friends.

The efforts of the staff of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, first to accession the collection and now to absorb it are a wonder to behold: thanks to all.

A special thanks to the scholars who generously gave their time to include their perspectives of the collection in this volume.

In what seems like the distant past, a friend, Gwen Goodman, the now Executive Director Emerita at the National Museum of American Jewish History, invited Dee and me to an NMAJH event.  There she introduced us to Arthur Kiron, the Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania. While we stood talking, I broached the simple idea of scanning our letters of the important mid-nineteenth-century rabbi Isaac Leeser. The goal would be to make them available on-line to scholars.  Arthur took that embryonic idea and magnified it to the tenth power.  The Jesselson-Kaplan American Genizah Project, now freely available on-line, is a groundbreaking model that shows how to gather dispersed but related documents and use digital technologies to integrate their content and make them user-friendly to scholars around the world.  Through that association, Arthur opened a window for us to see the extraordinary capabilities that Penn had in its Rare Book & Manuscript Library, with its expert curatorial and media resources, as well as the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, with its excellence in Judaic scholarship.

During this time, Dee and I had been going through a serious thought process as to where to place the collection. We had several requirements: do not break up the collection; place it in an institution with world-class archival qualifications; and last but not least, give it to an institution that would make the material readily available for scholarship.  However, there was one difficult issue to resolve.  The collection, in terms of volume and emphasis, is primarily archival in nature and is best suited for a special collections library environment, however; the collection also houses important early American Jewish art and silver and other three-dimensional artifacts. The latter fit better in a museum setting than in a rare book and manuscript library. 

In 2008, we approached Arthur with the following proposition: the Penn Libraries would take ownership of the entire collection and store the nonarchival material in accordance with museum standards. Penn would make the nonarchival material available to scholars or for short-term loans to exhibit at approved institutions. Importantly, the archival material would be scanned and made available to scholars worldwide. Arthur took the case to Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers, who approved the concept.  The plan has now become a reality.      

Arny Kaplan

Lakewood Ranch, Florida