Skip to Main Content

Special Collections: Rare Books


Description of the Rare Books Collection

Our earliest members had a deep interest in obtaining the latest books and periodicals that were available to them at the time of our founding in 1748.  Their interests ranged from ancient classics in Latin and Greek, to natural history, to biography and science.  Our librarians ordered titles from England through the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century. We are fortunate to have among our institutional records some of the early letter books containing copies of these letters that were sent to booksellers at the time, detailing long delays and hopes for copies of finer editions.  

After the Revolutionary War, we were able to buy books in Charleston but continued to have relationships with booksellers in England for the next 25 years.  Our earliest collection was kept by the librarians in their homes, and then when the collection grew to be too large, we leased space.  In 1778, Charleston architect Gabriel Manigualt was a member and allowed the library to keep its collection above his warehouse used to store liquor.  Unfortunately, a fire spread through that part of Charleston and we lost nearly all of our 5,000-6,000 volumes.  Only 185 survived.  From that group (known as the Foundation Collection), we rebuilt through wars, hurricanes, earthquakes and times of great financial strife.  Today, our Rare Books form an essential part of our Special Collections.

Hinson Collection

William Godber Hinson (1838-1919) was a Charlestonian and a planter of Sea Island cotton, owning plantations on James Island, including Stiles Point Plantation.  Hinson owned a house in downtown Charleston, on Legare Street, as well as property in the mountains of North Carolina.  A veteran of the Civil War, he was very active in agricultural societies, including the South Carolina Agricultural Society, and the Farmers’ Alliance.  Hinson was particularly interested in the study of sub soil drainage and commercial fertilizers.  In his later years, he devoted much time to raising asparagus.  He donated a large collection of books and pamphlets (over 2000 titles) and his manuscript collection to the Library in 1919.  His book collection primarily relates to agriculture, history, and biography.  The Hinson Collection today includes all of these titles, plus many more relating to South Carolina that we have since added.

Courtenay Collection

The Courtenay Collection was given to the Library in 1906 by Mayor William Ashmead Courtenay, a former mayor of the City of Charleston.  A catalog of the collection was published in 1908 and it details the portraits, books, pamphlets, maps and manuscripts which were presented to the Library.  Courtenay, a veteran of the Civil War, had been a book publisher and book seller prior to becoming mayor, and his collection reflects an admiration for fine bindings and historical materials.  He had several volumes bound in decorative leather with gold tooling.