Collecting Delaware Books

Reminiscences of Wilmington

Reminiscences of Wilmington, in Familiar Village Tales, Ancient and New by Elizabeth Montgomery (1778-1863) is likely to be included in any list of collectible Delaware books. It is a charming description of Wilmington life in the first half of the 19th century, meant to be read before it is shelved in a dusty collection.

Montgomery published the 367-page first edition in 1851. A 310-page second edition (or second printing) followed in 1872 and is said to be rarer. There was a facsimile reprint in 1971. An ecopy can be downloaded free at Internet Archve.

Her writing is bright and clear and only occasionally interrupted by Victorian religious sentiment. The stories provide details of daily life in Wilmington from the viewpoint of the builders of factories as well as the people of the town.

She describes the flour mills on the Brandywine and their national reputation. Names like Canby and Shipley figure prominently. Montgomery goes on to say,

"There are at present thirteen mills in operation. These, with the mechanics employed, make Brandywine a busy place. Formerly the wheat was conveyed in buckets to the upper stories. Then Oliver Evan's machinery was installed."

[Anyone with a copy of Delawarean Oliver Evan's 1795 Young Mill-Wright & Miller's Guide with its detailed plans will be glad to know the machinery was widely adopted.]

Montgomery also told of leisure time on the Brandywine. Skating on the frozen mill races was winter sport.

"… spectators come here to witness the feats displayed in skating. Some with great dexterity cut ciphers or write letters, others have little girls holding on to their coats as they skate, or in sleds fastened to their waists, flying over the ice in full glee many are skilled in the art of sliding to a great distance, others are popping down at every attempt, yet not discouraged, so absorbed in pleasure they are regardless of the intense cold."

Returning to local industry, she writes,

"In the progress of invention and improvement, however, which has been so remarkably developed in our day, the Messrs. Gilpin extended their concern here very much, and established a new process it was the art of manufacturing paper by machinery, so as to make a sheet of paper continuous and endless in length, and originating there was the first establishment of this kind in America. The paper was made on a revolving cylinder, all the machinery for which was made on the spot, and it was entirely successful."

[And anyone who knows the history knows that the Gilpins got many of their ideas on a trip to France by what is called industrial espionage today.]

The Brandywine also provided a place for the young couples of the community to frolic in summer.

"We rode to the paper-mill, where we alighted, and bore the provisions to the destined place of entertainment. We were soon joined by the company, and procured a sylvan retreat just above the mills. The seats on the rocks were arranged in convenient order to receive us, the rocks rising behind to screen us from the world, and providing a rural retreat beside the cold clear stream. The weather was enchanting. The opposite forest was beautifully painted by the finger of reflection on the calm surface of the Brandywine. Every face beamed with youthful pleasure soon baskets were opened, and a limpid spring afforded its aid to our gratification. A huge pitcher of lemonade was followed by cake, and never did it more refresh the spirits. The three musicians bounded with elastic steps over the rocks, and placed themselves amid a green bower above us. There the flutes played, and the rocks reverberated with their sweetest notes. We had a feast of melody."

Montgomery traces the coming of running water to Wilmington. At one time, city officials decided tree roots were destroying the wooden water mains, and decreed that all the trees from the Christiana to the Brandywine should be cut down. The women of the town rose up in anger.

"Upon much deliberation, it was agreed to petition those uncompromising rulers. Two hundred females and others signed. This was too formidable an array to be easily set aside, and the shade was spared for a season. "

Next year the trees were cut down, but the officials suffered politically. In the end, the wooden mains were found to be defective and were replaced with cast iron ones.

This book is widely available at prices ranging from $25 to $200, depending on condition. It includes some excellent engravings. All copies we have seen suffer from foxing. There are so many different bindings, the book may have been initially issued unbound. — JPR

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