Born in Warsaw, Poland, Henry Posner Senior emigrated to the United States, arriving in Boston about 1905. He worked successively as a dock worker in Boston, census taker and teacher in Baltimore, and as a surveyor for the Western Maryland Railway. In 1912 he attended Carnegie Tech but left before graduating to start his own business on Spahr Street in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. That business, the Alpha Claude Neon Corporation, in 1927 became the first licensee of the George A. Claude patents for the low-pressure gas discharge lamp which developed into the neon sign industry. By 1932, Alpha Claude Neon had become the Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising Company, which Posner owned and managed until his retirement in 1964.
Posner exercised the same skill, research, and attention to detail in his book collecting as he did in his business. During 50 years of collecting, between 1924 and 1973, Posner maintained detailed records of his purchases, correspondence with booksellers, and research notes about items he was considering for his collection. Posner’s correspondence, in particular, reveals his characteristics as a collector: his methodical commitment to research, his perseverance and patience, and his pleasure and enjoyment in his collection.
Much of Posner’s knowledge of antiquarian books had been obtained from booksellers. In a letter to Jacob Zeitlin, a well-known bookseller in California, Posner wrote:
"As a rule, there are always exceptions, book collectors don't always know all they should about the books they are collecting. And I sometimes think librarians are so busy supervising, cataloging and studying special subjects, that they are not as knowledgeable as one would expect them to be. The rare book dealers - that's a different story. They know." (March 11, 1971)
Despite his reservations about librarians, Posner wrote boldly to major libraries for assistance in verification and collation and he received lengthy and helpful replies from many.
Posner was consistent in acquiring books that were flawless, or close to it, for his collection. He demanded perfection from his booksellers in any items they quoted to him. In a letter to Lawrence Gomme, he wrote:
"I generally know what I am after and will not buy anything except what I want, and in first class condition at that." (April 17, 1951)
He respected his booksellers but demanded much from them in service, attention to detail, and expertise. He even expected a discount. Posner arranged for a standing discount with some major booksellers and is still remembered in the trade for this. Posner was able to arrange a 10 percent discount with H.P. Kraus in 1955, with H. Marley of Dawson's, and F. Thomas Heller. Sometimes, for a significant title, a bookseller would hold out, claiming a very small profit margin, and Posner would want the book enough to acquiesce. Jacob Zeitlin won one of these exchanges over Posner’s first edition of Ptolemy’s Almagest (Basel, 1538). Many letters written in response to Posner’s inquiries make plain the booksellers’ exasperation with this determined, bibliophilic businessman, who had to be kept satisfied since he regularly made significant purchases.
Posner understood that he needed patience and optimism to collect the best copies of the titles that he wanted to add to his collection. He was most proud of his copy of the Almagest and its illustrious provenance. In a letter to a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, he wrote:
"… For some reason, Darwin items are apparently very scarce. However, in this book-collecting game one has to be very, very patient. Eventually, they all show up. It took me twenty-seven years to acquire Ptolemy's 'Almagest.'… After being in the collection of Marcus Laurinus, the Mathematical Society, The Royal Astronomical Society, and the Bibliotheca Colbertina of the famous Prime Minister to Louis XIV of France, it finally landed in the Library of the Family of Henry Posner …" (January 9, 1974)
Posner’s copy of the Almagest was purchased from Jacob Zeitlin of Zeitlin and Ver Brugge in Los Angeles in January of 1972. This was the last major title acquired for his collection before his death in 1976. Zeitlin and Ver Brugge sent the Ptolemy to Posner on approval. Posner asked for a discount, but Zeitlin was able to command full price as he had a firm order for the book from the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels. Posner replied on January 13, 1972: "…since I want the book, I enclose my check."
Posner died on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The Posner Memorial Collection was formally deposited in the Fine and Rare Book Room of Hunt Library by his son, Henry Posner Jr. and daughter-in-law, Helen on January 28, 1978.
The collection was installed in the Posner Center, a gift of Henry and Helen Posner Jr. in memory of their parents, in May 2004. The facility is located on the Carnegie Mellon campus between the College of Fine Arts and the Tepper School of Business, facing Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall. Mr. and Mrs. Posner Jr. also provided funds to support the digitization of the collection, which was completed in 2005. The Posner Fine Arts Foundation, directed by Anne Molloy, further supports the use of the collection by funding internships and research fellowships for Carnegie Mellon students and early career scholars, who conduct research and other projects in the collection.
By placing the collection at Carnegie Mellon, where it can be properly housed and cared for, the Posner family has provided the Pittsburgh community with the opportunity to share, enjoy and learn from these wonderful books.
The Posner Collector’s Files form an archive of correspondence, book descriptions, invoices, and bookseller’s catalogsassembled by Henry Posner Senior from the 1920s to the 1970s. Collectively, these materials document the formation of the Posner Memorial Collection,which has also been digitized. The Posner Collector’s Files offer an unusually detailed view of the antiquarian book trade in the twentieth century and include Posner’s correspondence with librarians, fellow collectors, and scholars concerning the books in his collection. The Posner Collector’s Files are comprehensive in documenting almost all of the purchases of rare books that Posner negotiated and made during his life.
Accessing the Collection
The Posner Collector's files are held by Carnegie Mellon University Special Collections. Please contact Special Collections to schedule an appointment.
Researchers may also be interested in the Posner Memorial Collection.
Use of Images
Images of materials in the Posner Collection have no known copyright restrictions and may be used freely for non-commercial purposes. A source attribution and citation must accompany all images, preferably in the following format:
Image courtesy of the Posner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Special Collections [Call no. of item].