vendredi 28 janvier 2011

19th Century Libraries in Stanstead Part 3 : Silas Dickerson’s Stanstead Circulating Library

Silas Horton Dickerson (1799-1857) established himself as a printer in Stanstead in 1823. As such, he was the first printer in the Eastern Townships, and issued from 1823 to 1834 the very first newspaper in the area : the British Colonist and St. Francis Gazette [1]. He also printed a few books [2] ; and, as was common practice among printers of the time, he also doubled as a bookseller at his shop in Stanstead Plain. The British Colonist published advertisements for both his own publications, and for books issued by other publishers. Silas H. Dickerson experienced more than his share of financial and judicial problems during his career as printer and publisher, which brought him to close down his business by 1834 [3].

Silas Horton Dickerson and his wife, Mary Price.
Ambrotype, circa 1855 (Courtesy Mrs. Lisa Morrison, Ottawa)

Another widespread activity for printers and booksellers of the period, was to set up "circulating libraries", where patrons of the shop could rent books for a small fee, or for varied term subscriptions (yearly, quarterly, monthly). This type of library, contrary to the so-called "social" libraries, was privately owned by a single proprietor, and was primarily a commercial activity. At the turn of the 19th century, there were libraries of this sort in Montreal and Quebec City – where, for instance, printer and bookseller Thomas Cary operated a circulating library from his premises on St. Louis street. 

A true pioneer of  the Canadian book trade – as the first printer, publisher and bookseller to set up outside of the larger cities of Canada East (as the province of Québec was called at the time) –, Dickerson also appears to be the first to operate such a library in a rural area.

The advent of circulating libraries was still a novelty in Dickerson’s era. The earliest known circulating library in America was initiated by William Rind in Annapolis (Maryland) in 1762, but was short lived. However, by the early 19th century, circulating libraries had become a trend of sorts, as more and more book and print shops were caught up in the movement. Multiple copies of selected books were kept in stock for renting out to customers. Over time, "circulating libraries were often criticized for the shallowness and moral laxity of their book stock and customers, and it is clear that they often catered to the frivolous and the less educated. Some books, it was alleged, were ‘written solely for the use of the circulating library, and very proper to debauch all young women who are still un-debauched’.[4] "

This was obviously not the case for Silas Dickerson’s stock of books, as all the offerings of the Stanstead Circulating Library were predominantly of a religious character – and certainly not the usual fare of popular novels and adventure stories that were found in many circulating libraries in 19th century American cities [5]. In a small brochure printed in 1830 by S. H. Dickerson, "The Rules and Catalogue of the Stanstead Circulating Library, instituted in 1830" [6], some 158 books available at the library are listed, along with detailed indications on its rules and modes of operation (see illustrations). This private library most likely acted as open competition to the social libraries, and possibly added to the difficulty they faced in securing a steady flow of active users – slowly contributing to their demise. Yet Dickerson’s stock cannot be viewed as undermining the social libraries’ inventories, seeing that these mainly held books of quite another, non-religious, nature.

The religious bent of Dickerson’s circulating library comes as no surprise, since much of the content of his paper, the British Colonist, was initially oriented towards religious subjects. Having been apprenticed for six years to a Kingston printer, Stephen Miles [7], and later employed by Nahum Mower in Montreal – both of them known for their religious proselytism –, Dickerson was certainly influenced in his devotions by his former masters, and it is not unlikely that he settled in Stanstead in 1823 because of the strong presence of the Methodist church in the area. It is also known that Silas Dickerson was one of the "proprietors" of the Stanstead Wesleyan Seminary in the early 1840’s [8], along with the most influencial Stanstead citizens of the time.

Pages from 
The Rules and Catalogue of the Stanstead Circulating Library, 1830.
Collection Haskell Free Public Library, Rock Island, Qeébec, & Derby Line, Vermont.

Though the Stanstead Circulating Library catalogue speaks for itself as to its religious emphasis, Silas Horton Dickerson’s "credo" towards books and reading is of a more secular nature:

As reading is a source of the highest personal improvement, and the most exquisite pleasure, accessible to men of every rank ; those who neglect books inadvertently injure themselves ; for a life destitute of knowledge is worse than death. [9]

[1] See Jean-Pierre Kesteman, "Les premiers journaux du district de Saint-François (1823-1845)", in Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française, vol. 31, n° 2, 1977, p. 240-233 ; available  on Internet at
[2] Books printed by Dickerson include Elmer Cushing’s "An Appeal…", issued in 1826. See Pierre Rastoul, "Early Book Trades in Stanstead, circa 1820-1850", in Stanstead Historical Society Journal, vol. 23, 2009 ; pp. 93-120
[3] However, he remained active in Stanstead afterwards, namely as an organizer for the Reformist party, supporting the election of their candidates John Grannis and Marcus Child in 1836. During the Patriot Rebellion (1837-1838), he was forced into exile to the U.S., but returned shortly after to Stanstead, where he held positions as public officer – namely as Customs Agent for the "port" of Stanstead (1853 on), and later, in 1857, as the first Mayor of Stanstead Plain. Dickerson passed away three months later, and is buried in the Cristal Lake cemetery in Stanstead. A biography of Silas H. Dickerson, by Jean-Pierre Kesteman, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. VIII (1851-1860), available online at
[4] Richard Wendorf, as quoted by Rick Ring in "Notes for Bibliophiles", the Providence Public Library Special Collections blog, November 4, 2008 ; at
[5] See David Kaser, A Book for a Sixpence. The Circulating Library in America ; Pittsburgh, Beta Phi Mu, 1980.
[6] The only known copy of this brochure is preserved at the Haskell Free Public Library.
[7] Stephen Miles eventually sold his print shop in Kingston to become a Methodist pastor, in 1819, at which time Dickerson moved to Montreal to work with Nahum Mower. On Stephen Miles, see Aegidius Fauteux, The Introduction of Printing in Canada, Montréal : Rolland Paper Company, 1930; p. 137.
[8] A Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Stanstead Seminary in Canada East, for the years 1841 & 1842, Sherbrooke, Printed by J. S. Walton, 1842. (Courtesy of James Farfan, Ogden)
[9] The Rules and Catalogue of the Stanstead Circulating Library…, Stanstead, Printed by S. H. Dickerson, 1830 ; cover page.

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