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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

PBA Galleries is selling an unusual copy of the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz this week:
With ink inscription on front free endpaper, “Richard Adlai Watson, from his Godfather R.J. Street, May 23, 1900”; [bibliographers] Bienvenue & Schmidt note that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had its official publication on September 1, 1900,” making this a very early pre-publication copy. In fact, it pre-dates the copy given by [L. Frank] Baum to his brother, which he noted in the May 28, 1900 presentation inscription as “the first copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that left the hands of the publisher.” The present copy was known to Justin Schiller, and in 1970 he speculated that Street was somehow involved in the publication of the book, and took a fresh copy from the press before Baum had a chance to get one.
This thing called the internet allows us to learn more about the people involved in this gift.

Richard Adlai Watson was born 16 Jan 1893 in Buenos Aires, according to his WW2 draft card, so the inscription date indicates that he received the book when he was seven. He went on to Yale, where he wrote melodramatic fiction. After graduating in 1915, he joined the American Bronze Company in Pennsylvania under his brother John Warren Watson, older by ten years and a UPenn grad. The brothers then founded the John Warren Watson Company, which manufactured the “Watson stabilator” and other shock absorbers for automobiles. They worked together for decades.

Since R. J. Street identified himself as Richard’s godfather, I guessed that his first initial stood for “Richard,” and searched for “Richard J. Street.” In 1900 a man of that name was the head cashier at the First National Bank of Chicago. Three years earlier, a guide to US banks said that Street “has a record of twenty-five years’ continuous service with the bank. He has had a very large share in the building up of that institution, and is recognized as the semper fidelis of the First National, and the presiding genius of its affairs.”

What’s the likely connection between Street and the Watson family? The Watson brothers were sons of Thomas T. Watson, born in Ireland about 1848. According to an article in The Insurance Press in 1917, the elder Watson worked for the Equitable Life Assurance Society for thirty-five years, starting as a clerk in Chicago around 1872, the same time Richard J. Street was starting at the First National. So I’m guessing the two young businessmen became friends. From 1889 on, Watson headed the company’s offices in Argentina and Brazil—which is why Richard was born overseas (though he might have been sent back to Chicago for schooling).

The main question is, of course, how Street might have given young Richard a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz even before its author sent a copy to his brother, especially since (contrary to Schiller’s good guess) he was not involved in publishing. And on that I got nothing. Perhaps Street was so important in Chicago business that somebody at the publishing company slipped him a copy. Perhaps he simply dated the inscription wrong—though we expect precision from head cashiers. Perhaps Baum took the first copy from the press but didn’t inscribe it to his brother for another couple of weeks.

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