Browse Exhibits (2 total)

More Than Just A Cabinet-Maker: Understanding the 'Account of Coffins' in John Williams' Account Book 1700-1758

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John Williams worked as a cabinetmaker in New Castle, Delaware during the eighteenth-century. Although not much is known about his personal life, John Williams left behind an account book that details his work between 1700-1758. While far from complete or meticulously organized, this account book sheds light on the role this cabinetmaker played in the New Castle community. Various entries in the account book depict Williams’ work as related to his personal household expenses, cabinetmaking, building repairs and construction, joining, shopkeeping, importing and exporting goods, and coffin-making. From the entries in the account book, Williams’ appears to have worn many different hats, all of which required him to be relied on by the people of New Castle for everything from their furniture and repairs to their houses, to purchasing tobacco, to constructing a coffin for a recently deceased family member. In other words, both the well-off and the poor would have had dealings with Williams, and Williams would have seen these individuals at both their high and low points in life. 

It is not until a century later, in the nineteenth-century, that coffin making becomes highly romanticized and commercialized in America. However, John Williams’s account book, “Account of Coffins," reflects the trust and respect that the residents of New Castle must have had for his skills as a woodworker to entrust him with creating the container that would preserve their loved one’s dignity and body in death. It is for this reason that John Williams’ role as  a coffin maker will be further examined.

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Oak Knoll Books

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In 1976, a chemical engineer named Bob Fleck changed his profession and became a bookseller. He opened Oak Knoll Books, and two years later expanded to open Oak Knoll Press. Fleck ran the business and contributed greatly to the antiquarian book world until he passed away in 2016. His son, Robert Fleck III, now serves as the Antiquarian Director of Oak Knoll Books and Press.

When Bob Fleck first opened Oak Knoll, he traded and sold his personal collection in exchange for inventory, a stock that has now grown to about 23,000 books. While the company has expanded, its mission has remained relatively unchanged over the last forty-one years: to specialize in books about books, in the broad sense of the term. From the history of the book trade to the art of bookmaking and publishing, Oak Knoll has explored the objecthood of the book throughout its existence. The dual life of Oak Knoll as a collector and creator of books, specializing in books about books, is explored through trade catalogs and personal testimonies of the Fleck family in “Collecting and Creating.”

Oak Knoll is located in New Castle, Delaware, the first capital of the First State and the landing point of William Penn. Fittingly enough for its historic setting, Oak Knoll is situated in a building with a history of its own. What began as a Masonic Temple continued its life as the New Castle Opera House before eventually becoming home to the bookshop and press. To learn more about the building’s storied past, check out “The Locations of Oak Knoll Books.”

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