Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Revolution, Redoute, and Why Collect Books?


The stray bullet shattered the hotel window narrowly missing the young American railroad engineer, Will Winterrowd.  He would save it as a souvenir.  It was February 1917 and Winterrowd was watching the plaza below from his hotel room in Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg).  He recalled the chaos he witnessed, “a hooligan with an officer’s sword belted over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; a small boy with a large butcher’s knife, a soldier with an officer’s sword in one hand, without the scabbard, and a bayonet in the other hand; another with a revolver in one hand and a tram-railer cleaner in the other; a student with two rifles and a band of machine-gun bullets around his waist. All were singing, shouting, and repeatedly firing off their weapons into the air.”

The Russian Revolution had begun and what started out as relatively peaceful protests and strikes soon devolved into escalating violence.  Winterrowd was Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway and traveling with George Bury, Vice President of the railway, having been invited to Russia as part of a commission to advise the government on modernizing their outdated railway system. 

Winterrowd recounted, “We witnessed street fighting in Petrograd of a bloody nature.  The first few days passed quietly enough, as far as bloodshed was concerned, but on the fourth day mobs gathering in the central part of the city were attacked by the combined forces of the police and of Cossacks and infantry hastily sent into the city to protect imperialism against the gathering storm.

“These attacks continued until the soldiery, disgusted at the savage brutality of the police, deserted to the revolutionary cause.  The fighting then developed into a battle between soldiers and civilians and well-armed police, who, before their capture, did deadly work with machine guns mounted on tops of buildings.

 “Mr. Bury and myself spent seven days on rations of black bread and coffee.  During the height of the revolution all stores, restaurants, theatres and cafes were closed.  No street cars ran and a large part of the city was unlighted at night.  It was a mighty relief to us when, on March 16 [1917], Czar Nicholas abdicated and brought the revolution to a close.”

Winterrowd and Bury escaped Petrograd shaken but unscathed, hopeful the new Communist provisional government would follow their recommendations for modernizing the railroads.  His initial optimism of a more democratic system resulting from the overthrow of Imperialist Russia did not come to fruition.  Winterrowd’s account of his adventure was published shortly after their return home in Leslie’s Weekly. But Winterrowd had another adventure awaiting him—one that didn’t involve gunfire, revolution, or possible death—but nonetheless, changed his life.  He became a book collector.

My introduction to Winterrowd is recent.  I acquired last week a copy of his pamphlet Why Collect Books? To the Prospective Competitor in the Purdue University Book Collecting Contest (1937), this example inscribed to famous Chicago bookseller Walter M. Hill.  I began to research Winterrowd’s life and discovered his story about the harrowing trip to Russia.  The next day I was in a high-rise condo in Houston, enjoying the panoramic views, thinking about Winterrowd as I appraised a group of interesting books for a client.   None were from his library, mind you—nothing that serendipitous—but another twist was added that would pull me back to the Russian Revolution.  But first let’s explore Mr. Winterrowd’s essay Why Collect Books?

Winterrowd graduated from Purdue University in 1907 and became a stalwart alumnus, heavily involved in raising awareness and support for his alma mater.  One activity that dovetailed with his personal interests was the sponsorship of a book collecting contest for students.  Winterrowd’s own book collecting was inspired by A. Edward Newton.  He writes, “I became imbued with [the collecting spirit] many years ago after reading A.Edward Newton’s The Amenities of Book Collecting (1918).  That book fired an interest in me that is unquenchable.  In addition, it stimulated my interest in good books, books that are veritable treasure houses of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration, and interest.  Read Newton’s book if you dare.  It will make you understand what I mean.  It is in the University Library; at least I hope it is.” 

Winterrowd and Newton eventually became good friends.  Winterrowd would write a sympathetic and touching introduction to the second sale volume of the A. Edward Newton auction catalogue (1941), recalling his visits with Newton at his Oak Knoll home.  Winterrowd’s sponsorship of the Purdue book collecting contest was certainly inspired by Newton.  Newton himself was involved in sponsoring an earlier contest at Swarthmore College in the 1920s-30s.

 Winterrowd explains in Why Collect Books? that he gathered a solid library related to engineering as his early career progressed.  Then he writes, “I made the important discovery that many successful men have culture.  When I made that discovery I changed my plan of reading and study to include cultural subjects.  It was one of the wisest things I ever did.  Not only has it helped me acquire much valuable knowledge, but it has helped me in dealings with my fellowmen.  In addition it has brought to me a joy and interest all its own, particularly in the field of good books.  God help the man or woman who does not know that in good books one has the most constant friends in life!  Good books are always at one’s beck and call ready to afford knowledge, comfort, pleasure, and inspiration. . .  [Collecting] often helps you make good friends, and good friends in life are one of man’s most valuable assets.”

He continues, “I established the book-collecting award at Purdue with the hope that I might stimulate you to discover, before you pass beyond the campus gates, something that will be of untold value to you in after years. . . May I tell you that in book collecting it is not quantity that counts?  It is quality.  I emphasize that point in order that you will not think you must own a whole room full of books in order to be a well-qualified competitor.

 “What books should you collect?  Well, I am not going to give you a list.  Part of the fun and pleasure you have in store for you is in appraising the value of books you read and add to your collection.  Some technical books if you wish, but may I suggest that you do not overlook the fields of Biography, History, Art, Economics, Religion, and Literature.  Why not have a book chat with the University Librarian, or some of your interested instructors?  They can give you valuable suggestions and you will learn at once that knowledge of able men is most interesting, inspirational, and desirable.

“And if you do not win the prize?  Well, I hope that you do win it, not so much for the financial reward but for the knowledge and happiness it will bring you.  If your collection does not win an award, may I assure you that in the years to come you will look back upon your initial book-collecting efforts with an ever-growing knowledge and appreciation of the fact that no prize could ever have been compensated you for what you have gained through the . . . love of good books.”

I have found little about the Winterrowd sponsored contest—who entered, who won, did he continue to even sponsor a contest? And frankly, if many even read his pamphlet.  But the seed was planted, and later references show that in the 1960s Purdue had a vibrant annual collegiate book collecting contest sponsored by another collector, James Thielman, “noted Indiana book collector from Terre Haute. . . Besides the local award from Thielman, the winner in the undergraduate division will automatically enter national competition for a $1,000 prize, the Amy Loveman National Award.”  A $1,000 award in 1965 was serious money. A brief research detour revealed that Loveman (1881-1955) was a founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and heavily involved in the Book-of-the-Month Club. The national award was created by the Women’s National Book Association, together with the Saturday Review and Book-of-the-Month Club to honor the late Amy Loveman.  The award was first given in 1962 for a collection on “Ancient and Primitive Man.”  About 100 submissions a year were received until the award was discontinued in the early 1970s because of high administrative costs.

All this new biblio-information was swirling haphazardly in my brain the next day when I began my book appraisal in Houston.  I hefted onto the dining room table the large paper, folio copy in contemporary red morocco of Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s Choix des plus Belles Fleurs (Paris: L’Auteur, et al., 1829), a magnificent work so rare in this format that very few have had the opportunity to even see one.  The book contains 144 botanical plates, color-printed and retouched by hand, possibly by Redoute himself.  Redoute (1759-1840), a Belgian painter famous for his watercolors of roses and other flowers, is generally regarded as the greatest botanical illustrator of all time.  The owner had inherited the Redoute book along with a small selection of other illustrated books from a long-deceased Swiss aunt who came from a family of European book and print collectors.  The books were purchased in the 1930s-60s.   I recognized quickly that this cache of items had been collected with the developed taste of advanced collectors acquiring not just a copy, but the right copy.  Most of the collection had been gifted to the Swiss National Library decades earlier.  These were odds and ends retained by the family.  But what odds and ends!  Other fabulous items included a 1635 Blaeu Atlas, a choice copy in contemporary French red morocco of La Fontaine’s Fables Choisies (1755-1759), and a signed set of Marc Chagall’s illustrated edition of Daphnis & Chloe (1961).

As I examined the Redoute, I immediately noticed an armorial bookplate with the motto “Terra mopes patriae sibi nomen.”  I also found a small library stamp with Russian markings on the title page.  Great books often have an interesting thread of ownership, sometimes straight, but often tangled.

That evening I identified the bookplate:  Earl Grigory Alexandrovich Stroganov (1770-1857) – a Russian diplomat, an ambassador to Spain, Sweden, Turkey, a prominent state and public official in the epoch of Alexander I and Nikolas I, an official representative of Russia at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, and a friend and relative of the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

The library stamp was more challenging.  I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow collector William Butler.  Butler, a distinguished law professor at Penn State, has a particular expertise in Russian.  He combines this with a passion for book collecting and bookplate collecting.  After a couple of email exchanges, the mystery was solved.  The stamp was of the Imperial University of Tomsk, the first institution of higher education in Siberia.  With this key in hand, the door opened to the rest of the story and once again the Russian Revolution became vivid.  The collector Stroganov, a cosmopolitan man who spoke many languages, had a wide variety of interests.  He gathered a huge, valuable library with a focus on French books, both historical and illustrative, but he also acquired works in Russian, English, German, and Spanish.  After his death, his sons gifted his 22,000 (!) volume library to the Imperial University of Tomsk.  So, it appeared that the Redoute had either been deaccessioned by the library at one point or stolen – but the answer was more complicated. 

As Winterrowd dodged bullets and witnessed first-hand the beginnings of the Revolution in 1917 in St. Petersburg, Stroganov’s books sat comfortably ensconced at Tomsk in Siberia, apparently out of harm’s way.  But it was not to last.  By the 1920s, the Soviets were strapped for cash and began to sell cultural treasures from museums and libraries.  Tomsk’s remote location at first shielded the library from depredation.  But in April 1930 a special government Sovnarkom “shock brigade” arrived in Tomsk from Moscow.  The primary task of the brigade was to identify books in the library—principally in the Stroganov Collection-- that might be of value to the Western book market and to designate these rare volumes for withdrawal. Over the objections of the local university community, eight hundred and thirty rare items were selected and transferred to the Soviet regime and eventually sold, among them the Redoute Choix des plus Belles Fleurs.

Winterrowd would not have been aware of these forced deaccessions as the details were kept secret well into the 1980s and beyond.  His last published writing was the introductory essay to A. Edward Newton’s 1941 auction catalogue. It was “more personal than bibliographical but I have spoken from my heart.”  This sentimental railroad engineer did not outlive his mentor Newton by much.  I was saddened to learn in December 1941, at the age of 57, Winterrowd was driving home and was involved in an accident, colliding with a trailer-truck. At first recovery looked promising, but a week later he suddenly collapsed and died. 

What began for me as a rather straightforward look at William Winterrowd’s pamphlet Why Collect Books? expanded into an intriguing saga of friendship, revolution, upheaval, and the mercurial nature of a book’s passage through history.  During my search for the elusive Winterrowd and the provenance of the Redoute, I found not only my own answer to Winterrowd’s question, but a reminder of the durable power of a personal library.  


  1. Great article. I wonder if Stroganov had beefs with anyone.

    1. Thanks, Dave. Appreciate the feedback. You're a punny man.

  2. That would be his dad? uncle? Pavel who inspired the dish, or so I'm told by a cooking blog. Nice job, Kurt! Rich