The Sincerest Form of Flattery

As it is That Time of Year again (i.e. the closing few weeks of the Spring semester, when apathy and desperation most fruitfully combine), plagiarism, copyright infringement, and other forms of printed malfeasance occupy a lot of my attention. Even my little Wood’s House project is not immune:

Title page of the 1835 Charles Wells printing of Cook's New and Complete Letter Writer

By no means an original gangster.

One of the oldest and most sadly mangled books of the lot is this 1835 US reprint (or adaptation, or possibly outright theft)  of a very popular letter manual first published in the 1770s in London, written/compiled by the Rev. Thomas Cooke. The reason you don’t see a cover in the above photo is because there isn’t one anymore. This book has seen very hard use indeed.

Damaged book with broken binding, missing cover

Cook has come undone.

One nice thing about even a sadly damaged book like this one is that it provides a relatively rare opportunity for someone not otherwise acquainted with the business of bookbinding to take a look at how the object was put together. This book had a sewn (as opposed to glued) binding, although it’s almost entirely ruined now. There are several missing pages in addition to the lost front cover (either where binding thread has rotted or broken or where the pages themselves have crumbled or been torn). Someone seems to have used pages in both the front and the back to do arithmetic — the back cover and last leaves are covered in pencilled calculations, scribbles, and what appear to be the results of someone practicing writing names in a careful, ornamented cursive hand.

Detail, broken binding of an 1835 US reprint of Cook's New and Complete Letter Writer

Time has broken the ties that bind.

While the book in the Wood’s House collection is a preservation nightmare (and not, in any case, an especially valuable piece in its own right), it is an interesting landmark for someone who wants to explore the early history of printing and bookselling in the United States. It is also a fascinating example of a phenomenon that was apparently once fairly common  in exchanges of both materials and social norms between Britain and its former colonies: the repurposed, adapted, and sometimes simply stolen book. I’m not going to go through everything one might want to know about that sort of thing here — those interested in a more detailed account of the odd history of Cooke’s little letter-writing manual should read Eve Tavor Bannet’s excellent Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), the Prologue of which is available here. Briefly: letter-writing manuals of this sort, which were a highly popular text exchanged between the US and Britain, dealt both with style and with the signification and reinforcement of social norms. They didn’t just model letters — they modeled idealsPoliteness, in this context, is also a socio-economic class signifier.

The attentive reader will have noticed that in the previous paragraph, I spelled the name of the book’s author Cooke rather than Cook (the spelling on the title page pictured above). There’s a good reason for this. The former is apparently the “correct” spelling of the (pseudonymous) author of the London-printed original text. The latter is the “author” of the 1835 US adaptation.* Consider the title page of an 1812 edition of the original text, set, printed, and sold in London as The Universal Letter Writer or New Art of Polite Correspondence:

Title page and frontispiece, Cooke's Universal Letter-Writer (1812)

A screenshot of the frontispiece and title page of the 1812 edition of Cooke’s Universal Letter Writer, as printed and sold by an (unnamed) bookseller in London and Thomas Wilson & Son in York. The edition pictured here is currently owned by the New York Public Library, and may be viewed online in its entirety at the Internet Archive. The frontispiece from the 1835 US edition in the Wood’s House collection is missing, which makes it quite  impossible to compare them.

As we compare the title page of this text to the title page of the 1835 US printing, we notice a few interesting differences (the title, for one), of which the most amusing (to me, anyway) is the author statement. The 1812 book is attributed to “Rev. Thomas Cooke, A.B.,” who is identified as “One of the Authors of the New Royal and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences.” The 1835 book is attributed to “Rev. Thomas Cook, A.B.” but changes the further author description: “And [emphasis mine] one of the authors of the New Royal and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences In England.”

Hmmm. Suddenly, either Rev. Cook(e) has a co-author or the adapter of the text thought his title letters (A.B.) required a conjunction in order to join it properly to the description.


More revealing of the nature and extent of the 1835 adaptation, however, is a look at the early pages of the text. In the 1812 edition, for instance, the Table of Contents is at the beginning; in the 1835 printing, it’s at the very end. The actual content of the Preface and a brief set of Directions for Writing Letters is identical in both books, but the 1835 US version omits a section called “A New Plain and Easy English Grammar” that the 1812 London edition puts between the Preface and Directions. The first collection of examples in each book is comprised of “Letters To and From Different Relations,” and each letter is preceded by a brief note naming the sender and/or recipient, as well as (in the case of the first letter of a related group) the topic of their correspondence. The first letter in the 1812 edition is headed “From a merchant in London, to the master of a college, recommending his son as a pupil,” while the header of the first letter in the 1835 edition, which actually deviates in style both from the 1812 edition and from subsequent letters in its own text, is simply headed “On the Respect and Obedience due to Parents.”

The next time in the first section when the two texts match is Letter VII in the 1812 edition (in which four different letters are devoted to the exchange between the father, the master, and the young gentlemen in question and two more are devoted to an exchange about re-homing some orphans with a distant relative) and Letter II in the 1835 text, a letter “From a young Gentleman to his Mother, during his Apprenticeship.” The text of Letter VII (1812) and Letter II (1835) is almost identical (they differ by three words, one of which is just a tense change).

A comparison of the rest looks a lot like this (albeit with some differences in content ordering) — there are shared letters in common mixed among letters unique to each text, and many of the unique letters specifically reflect the presumed location, occupation, and social class of their respective audiences. There are also shifts in location, syntax, and circumstance among otherwise shared pieces; Letter V in the 1835 edition, for example, is “From an aged Lady in the Country, to her Niece in New-York, cautioning her against keeping Company with a Gentleman of bad Character,” while its match, Letter XXV in the 1812 edition, is “From an aged lady in the country, to her niece in London, cautioning her against keeping company with a gentleman of a bad character.”

Regardless of the extent of the adaptation/borrowing  and whether we regard it as illicit or appropriate, the letters collected in both books invariably tell a story — they’re not just examples of how to write, they’re little epistolary dramas illustrating “correct” behavior. They recommend the pursuit of virtue, they politely demand that others respond to obligations appropriately, and they model good business practices. For example: both books include an exchange between “a young gentleman in expectation of an estate from his penurious uncle” (who disapproves of the young woman the young gentleman intends to marry) and the woman he desires. The letter in which she rejects his suggestion that they elope is headed “The lady’s prudent answer” (Letters XXXII and XXXIII, 1835; LXXXI and LXXXII, 1812).  Reading letter manuals like these is a bit like reading a collection of very short educational stories, not unlike the fun to be had with more contemporary mixes of story and instruction like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s delightful grammar guides (The Deluxe Transitive VampireThe New Well-Tempered Sentence).

I’m not sure how I feel about possibly plagiarized epistolary morality tales, but they sure are fun to read!

* The good Reverend (according to Bannet (2005, p. 194) is probably a pseudonym. The original publisher of this particular strain of Universal Letter-Writer, John Cooke of London, was known for printing work by authors with fictionalized credentials and occasionally bogus names (Rev. Cooke had an A.M. in some editions, for example, and an A.B. in others).

Amusingly, the tradition of playing with authorship for this text continues on Amazon, where anyone who wants to do the work can create their own Kindle or print edition of work currently in the public domain:


There may be an actual Thomas Cook who fits this description, but he is highly unlikely to be the fellow responsible for either the Universal Letter-Writer or the New and Complete Letter-Writer.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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