In the early 1700s, the Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Scheuchzer published an incredibly detailed account of the topography, geology, natural history, and climate of the Swiss Alps following his journey across the country. Ouresiphoites Helveticus records his assiduous field studies with engraved plates and maps, but we should perhaps read them with a grain of salt, as Scheuchzer also included illustrations of dragons terrorizing travelers. He didn’t mean any harm; many people in those days truly believed in the beasts.
Scheuchzer’s book is just one of many fascinating examples of mountaineering literature that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which will go on sale at Swann Auction Galleries’s auction of early printed travel, medical, and scientific books tomorrow. The entire collection spans from the 16th to early 20th century; the texts, many richly illustrated, are particularly compelling as their authors, who were exploring what were at the time very foreign realms, reveal details so telling of their time — unintentionally, of course.
A first-edition copy of Euclid’s Elementa geometriae from 1482, for instance, showcases what was then a highly innovative printing technique necessary to illustrate complex geometrical diagrams. (It’s apparently the hottest item of the sale, according to specialists, and yours for a mere, estimated $60,000–80,000.) One work by Albert Smith exemplifies another creative approach to publishing: the British mountaineer translated what he saw during his explorations of Mont Blanc into a board game, printing it on linen that could be folded up into a booklet. The squares depict scenes chronicling a journey from London to Mont Blanc; the winner was the first player to “reach the summit.” Smith’s game, intended primarily for children, also speaks to the popular fascination with mountaineering during the period.
Other notable books on the auction block record the perspectives of Europeans on life in Asia, from China to India. The French historian Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, for instance, published Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique, et Physique de l’Empire de la Chine, a four-volume set boasting 65 engraved plates and maps. He did not actually visit China, but remained in Paris, putting together the book from written reports of Jesuit missionaries. The result, translated into multiple languages, became the go-to encyclopedia to understanding China for many Europeans in the 18th century.
Perhaps just as influential, although in a wholly different way, was Edward Kidder’s Receipts of Pastry and Cookery, which I suppose must fall into the auction’s “science” category. The “pastry-master” — as he labels a portrait of himself in the cookbook — published this handbook of 170 dishes for students enrolled in the cooking schools that Kidder ran in the the 1720s and ’30s. The assortment of pies and puff pastries are memorialized in detailed illustrations that reveal the kinds of extravagant decorations that emerged from kitchens in this period (the folks at Swann actually impressively replicated Kidder’s artichoke pie).
Like many of these rare books for sale, Kidder’s cookbook will not be yours for a low price; but it may be one of the most worthwhile purchases available, offering an opportunity for you to expand your baking repertoire and impress at parties. A note to the buyer who shells out the couple of thousand dollars necessary (according to Swann’s pre-sale estimate) to buy this incredible tome, which you should probably consult outside of a messy kitchen and handle with silk gloves: please do send me any photographs of your attempts at its historical recipes.
The Early Printed, Medical, Science & Travel Books auction takes place on October 18; preview the catalogue on Swann Auction Galleries.