Bound Up in America’s History

Rollins receives a rare 200-year-old set of encyclopedias—the same version that George Washington had in his personal collection.

A rare set of 200-year-old books now resides in Olin Library thanks to the generous donation of an Orlando family, whose relatives passed the historic volumes down through the generations, beginning in the early 1800s.

The set of books, known as Dobson’s Encyclopædia, marked a milestone at the time of its publishing. It was the first encyclopedia printed in the newly independent United States and arrived with a gush of patriotic pride. Indeed, George Washington ordered two sets of the encyclopedia, which first went into production in 1789—the year he became president.

“Our initial research indicates that this is unique in Florida. This is a very significant piece,” says Olin Library Director Jonathan Miller, who was thrilled to add the historic gem to the Rollins Archives and Special Collections. He noted that the nearest libraries with similar set are Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Philadelphia publisher Thomas Dobson produced only 2,000 copies of the 18-volume encyclopedias between 1789 and 1798. He added another three supplemental volumes by 1803. So having a full 21-volume set suddenly surface in Central Florida two centuries later is an exciting development for history lovers.

Lisa Jones Hurley says her family chose Rollins to receive the books for several reasons. “We considered museums like the Smithsonian,” she says. “But my father didn’t want to give them to some place that might already have a set and would just put them away. We wanted somebody who would use and appreciate them. At Rollins, it would be like placing them in a jewelry box.”

James Robert Jones (Bob) and Rose Maguire Jones, Hurley’s parents, moved the Jones family to Florida in the mid-1970s and eventually retired in the area. The couple enjoyed attending theater productions at Rollins, prior to Bob’s death in 2013. Their granddaughter, Morgan Rose Hurley ’14MBA, is a recent Rollins graduate.

In addition to the encyclopedia’s value as a relic of a newly emerging nation, the antique volumes should pose intriguing research questions for students, says Claire Strom, professor of history. She says her students enjoy working with primary documents from earlier times. “If you want to be a chemist, you want to be in the lab. This is the historical equivalent of getting into the chemistry lab.”

Exploring the assumptions behind the accepted wisdom of two centuries ago could stimulate several student research projects. Indeed, one of the many interesting facets of the set is that it is essentially a copy of the then-current Encyclopædia Britannica, with significant patriotic changes.

U.S. copyright laws in the 1790s allowed for the legal reprinting of the British-made set of books. It was a time-consuming and expensive task in the 1790s, as each letter on the 16,650 pages had to be hand-set in metal type. Skilled workers also had to etch almost 600 copperplate engravings.

“This was seen as a very patriotic act for the new republic,” Miller says. “America was soaking up information from elsewhere. America was a net importer of information.”

Hurley says Bob Jones worked hard to retrieve volumes that were in the possession of other branches of the family. Over the generations, the encyclopedia survived several moves and escaped the Huntington Flood of 1937. The volumes were nearly gone for good when the family closed the house in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the late 1960s.

“We were getting ready to leave when my mother saw a little door in the attic leading to the eaves,” Hurley says. “She looked in and saw the encyclopedia.”

Based on research and family lore, Hurley believes that a direct ancestor, James Jones, was the original purchaser of the books in the early 1800s. Interestingly, Jones also purchased the land in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, that Gen. George Washington and his troops used as their encampment during the Revolutionary War. The Jones family resided there from 1827-78.

Hurley says her father, who had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, loved learning. He encouraged her and her brother, John, to leaf through pages of the old encyclopedia. One of the passages that always stayed with her was what she calls “a harrowing description of the latest medicine that starts with, ‘Bring two strong men.’ ” The succinct command illustrates the restraint required for surgical patients in the days before anesthesia.

From Philadelphia to Valley Forge to West Virginia to Winter Park, the historic encyclopedia has an interesting history all its own that the Jones family hopes will add to its significance at Rollins. And Hurley is glad it’s safe for future generations to study. “We almost lost the books more than once.”