Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Bookseller, the Library, and Volapük

The late news from Paris
Among the many volumes in the Bancroft Library, the special collections library of the University of California, Berkeley, are two books on Volapük, the Hand-Book of Volapük, by Charles E. Sprague, and the Abridged Grammar of Volapük; Adapted to the Use of English Speaking People, by Auguste Kerckhoffs, and the only question I have is: “did they end up in the library because of Bancroft’s younger brother?” The Bancroft Library is named Hubert Howe Bancroft, a California bookseller and amateur historian who amassed a substantial library which he later sold to the State of California.[1]

Why not the older Bancroft? Well, they might have been his, but he doesn’t seem to have thought much of Volapük. In an essay on “Early California Literature,” he noted that while “a universal tongue must in time prevail,” he felt that English “need fear no competition from such artificial substitutes as Volapuk, of uncouth aspect.” No Volapükian he. But his brother is another matter altogether.

On November 16, 1889, the Sacramento Daily Record-Union published a long letter from A. L. Bancroft on the Volapük congress held in Paris in August of that year. Bancroft’s letter is dated November 4, so the Record-Union seems to have waited until they had some space to fit it in. It’s not as if Bancroft was being all that timely with his reporting, as the congress had run from the 18th through the 21st of August. Bancroft’s letter is too long to quote in full,[2] and mostly involves the new rules concerning the Volapük Academy. Mr. Bancroft got this information from “the Volapuk papers,” and does not seem to have attended the congress himself.

The San Francisco city directories of the era list several Bancrofts, and I haven’t been able to work out the relationships. In addition to Albert L. and Hubert H., there were Charles E., George H., Harlow P., James, and William B., not to forget one Miss Edith M. There were also a number of business concerns, including A. L. Bancroft & Co., Bancroft Brothers & Co. (which implies that its heads, Charles, George, and Harlow were brothers), The Bancroft Company, the Bancroft-Whitney Co., and the Bancroft Library, which was in its original location on Valencia Street, in San Francisco.[3]

Albert didn’t found the business that bore his name. In 1860, the nineteen-year-old was working in the bookstore that his brother had founded. This is how I determined that our letter-writer was brother to the man whose collection formed the beginnings of Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. (Wikipedia notes that bookselling was something of a family trade, and that Hubert had entered the field working in his brother-in-law’s bookstore.[4]) By the time he was writing to the Record-Union, Hubert had sold out of the bookstore to devote his time to writing a history of the Pacific region and collecting books.

Albert seems to have married in 1866, though in 1870, he is still living with his widowed brother, his niece, parents, another brother Fred (who worked as a clerk), and one domestic servant, John Fitzgerald. By 1880, he has his own home, and he and his wife have four children, and lives with his wife’s mother.

It wouldn’t be one of my blog posts if I didn’t quote a little of the article. It gives a nice view of the state of Volapük in the United States in 1889.
The Paris Congress did not have time to discuss the rules of the grammar, but they decided that a simple standard grammar, written entirely in Volapuk, form which everything unnecessary is excluded, should be at once prepared by the members of the Academy. Until the Academy has issued such a grammar, the teachers of Volpuk should teach as they have done up to the present time.

A new Volapuk paper has just been started in Portland, Or., by Arnold Shezinger, Professor of Volapuk, entitled Volapukan Melodic. Orville D. Orton of St. Louis, has also established a Volapuk department in The Altruist. [5]
This particular development was also noted by the Pullman Herald, of Pullman Washington, on that same day (although they misspelled “Volapükan”).
Volapuk is making progress in other parts of the world faster than in America.. Here there is such a large body of English-speaking peoples who come in contact with nations of other languages so seldom that they feel the need of it less than in the smaller countries of Europe, where the traveling public will meet nations using three or four different languages in a single day. Volapuk has apparently come to stay, and promises to progress more rapidly in the future than it has done in the past.
Of course, Bancroft was wrong about that part. Volapük hadn’t come to say, and the dissolution of the Volapük movement came not long after. I’m certain that the participants of the 1889 Paris Volapuk congress didn’t know that it was to be the last for a very long time (there have been more recent Volapük congresses, right?).

Bancroft’s personal history becomes a little unclear after this. In 1900 (remember: the 1890 Census was mostly lost in a fire), Albert is a roomer in Los Angeles, while his wife is still living in San Francisco with four of her five children, three domestic servants, and one child, probably too young to be working. Given the ages of the Robrechts, Helen was probably a widow, and Annie, Joseph, and Helen were her children. The sixteen- and eleven-year-old children were old enough to work as servants, but apparently not the seven-year-old.

In 1910, Bancroft is still separated from his wife (at least in terms of lodging), as he is listed as a lodger in Oakland. He died four years later, on October 14, 1914, at the age of 73. His wife, Fanny, would live until 1922. And his brother Hubert, although nine years older, would live until 1918. Bancroft doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the Volapük movement. His firm is listed among publishers of Volapük materials, but he doesn’t seem to have been the writer his older brother was.

  1. This information and much more can be found on the Wikipedia pages for Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Bancroft Library.  ↩
  2. But if you want to, it can be found here, on the Chronicling America site.  ↩
  3. All of this in an 1891 San Francisco directory (the closest I could find to 1889)  ↩
  4. Which implies that Hubert and Albert had a sister, though I haven’t found the relevant record.  ↩
  5. The newspaper has “Alturist,” but I’m going to assume autocorrect got this one right.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...