In his 1902 book on the art of bookbinding, William Loring Andrews describes George Washington’s beautifully bound copy of The Contrast as “a book made doubly valuable by having the great chieftain’s bold, clear signature upon the title page.” That valuable book is now part of our Vermont Research Collection.
The Contrast is recognized as the first American comedy performed by a professional theater company. Royall Tyler wrote the play in 1787, four years before he moved to Vermont, where he was a lawyer, Supreme Court Justice and a University of Vermont trustee and instructor. The play was performed with some success in New York, Baltimore and Washington.
Royall Tyler assigned the copyright to actor Thomas Wignell, who portrayed the Yankee character Brother Jonathan in the original 1787 production. After gathering enough financial backing, Wignell arranged to have the script printed in 1790. He placed George Washington’s name first in the list of 375 subscribers in the published edition. Wignell sent two copies to Washington, who signed the title page of one copy in the upper right corner.
Three noted collectors of Vermontiana owned Washington’s copy of The Contrast before it came to Special Collections. After a long quest, Lucius E. Chittenden purchased it when remnants of Washington’s Mount Vernon library sold at auction in 1876. In his 1893 memoir, Chittenden declared the volume “perfect in every particular.” He wrote, “It would be difficult to imagine a volume possessing more elements of attraction to a collector than the first play written by an American, …once owned by the Father of his Country, who had written his own name upon the title, and which was withal of such excessive rarity.”
In 1920, James B. Wilbur purchased Washington’s copy of The Contrast at auction for $2,800. The auction catalogue provided a lengthy description, highlighting the book’s association with the first president of the United States and its fine binding “in American red morocco, border and center-piece inlaid in green morocco, with conventional floriated tooling in gilt.” Wilbur sponsored a limited edition of The Contrast, published in 1920, that included a history of George Washington’s copy.
After Wilbur died in 1933, the signed copy of The Contrast was included in an auction of his books and autographs. Vermontiana collector Hall Park McCullough of North Bennington purchased it for $3,100. Although the University of Vermont received significant portions of the Chittenden, Wilbur and McCullough libraries, Washington’s copy of The Contrast was not included. After McCullough’s heirs donated it to the University of Vermont in 1970, Special Collections director John Buechler praised it as one of the library’s major holdings. The donation rejoined George Washington’s signed copy of The Contrast with three of the libraries that had once held it.
Submitted by Prudence Doherty, Public Services Librarian