Bookwomen building Chicago — a Caxton connection

Part I of IV

Adele Hast


omen Building Chicago has a close tie with the Caxton Club. If you look up Caxton in the index, you’ll find “Caxton Club” and “Frances Hamill,” who became one of the early women members when the Caxton started admitting women in the 1970s. I’d like to start with the story of Hamill (1904-1987) and her friend and partner, Margery Barker (1901-1980), important rare-book dealers in Chicago. They were known for their acquisition of the papers of Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury group. What were Hamill and Barker doing before they met? Both came from upper-middle-class socially prominent Midwestern families. Barker was born in Michigan City, IN, where her family had a 41-acre estate, while Hamill lived on an estate in Clarendon Hills, IL.

Both went East for schooling. Hamill attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT. Barker enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, where she ran into difficulties during her freshman year. After some petty thefts took place in her dormitory, she was ordered to leave the school, although not formally accused of theft. When the college would not allow her to refute the charge, her mother filed lawsuits against the school, initially in the Court of Common Pleas and then by appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both suits were denied, based on narrow technical reasons, not on the facts, and she returned to her home.

Meanwhile, Margery Barker took a bookselling job in 1922, working for Fanny Butcher as a clerk in her bookstore. Butcher was the main book critic for the Chicago Tribune — and you’ll learn more about her later. By 1925, Barker was the store manager. The next year she hired Frances Hamill, and they developed a friendship. When Butcher decided to sell her store, Hamill and Barker wished to buy it, but Butcher sold to Doubleday Company. The two women were disappointed, but Butcher’s decision moved them to think about developing a rare-book business.

They spent eight months in Europe, studying rare books and purchasing inventory, and in 1928 they opened their store, Hamill and Barker, on Chicago’s North Side. The initial catalogs between 1928 and 1936 included works by Virginia Woolf. In 1941 they formed a legal partnership. Barker provided two-thirds of the capital, with each having an equal share in both profits and losses.

During World War II, Hamill and Barker decided that they should join other women in the war effort. They closed the store in 1943, storing the books in a dance hall on the Barker estate, and they took jobs as tool-grinder trainees at the General Motors Electromotive Division in La Grange, IL. On the night shift, they often worked 50 hours in a week, standing for much of the time and dealing with dust and flying particles in poor ventilation. In August 1945, they left General Motors and a year later reopened their store in Chicago in another location.

The 1950s were important for the business and for Frances Hamill professionally. She became president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America in 1953, the first woman and first Midwesterner in the post. In 1955, her essay on women printers, booksellers, and collectors before 1800 was published by the Bibliographic Society of America.

During the 1950s, they met Leonard Woolf, husband of the late Virginia Woolf — Woolf had died in 1941—and began a long relationship with him and others among the Bloomsbury literati. The acquisition of Virginia Woolf’s diaries began in 1957, the year they bought the 25 volumes. They did not receive the diaries until 1970, because Leonard Woolf wanted immediate access to them. They also bought several Woolf book manuscripts and hundreds of letters. Although Barker and Hamill were criticized for taking British treasures, most of the material went to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. Barker and Hamill early saw the importance of the Woolf papers.

In the same years, they bought a valuable collection of books and manuscripts of George A. Poole, owner of a Chicago printing company. The collection had rare books from 15th to the 18th Centuries, published in European countries, the United States, and China, and included one volume of the Gutenburg Bible and William Caxton’s printing of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1484. The collection was sold to Lilly Library at Indiana University.

In 1973, they were called “the big guns” of Michigan Avenue by a book critic, when they outbid a well-known New York dealer for Arthur Conan Doyles’ manuscript of The Sign of Four. This purchase took place at Chicago’s biggest rare book auction at the Hanzel Galleries. They also bought other valuable manuscripts for a total expenditure of $300,000.

That year, they became a national story, when they learned that six atlases they had bought had been stolen from Yale University. They offered to help the FBI in the investigation that followed.

Hamill and Barker were partners both in business and personal life. For years they shared an apartment in the Mies van der Rohe buildings on Lake Shore Drive. As highly-regarded book dealers, they carried a broad range of important literary works to the American book scene. They both died in the 1980s. As you know, their store continues under Caxtonian Terrence Tanner’s ownership as the Hamill and Barker Antiquarian Booksellers on Howard Street.

Women Bulding Chicago

The profiles in this article are drawn in part from essays in Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, copyright 2001 by Chicago Area Women’s History Conference, with permission of Indiana University Press. Image above provided through the courtesy of Indiana University Press.

Frances Barker (l) and Margery Hamill

Frances Barker (l) and Margery Hamill look at a First Folio of Shakespeare in their bookshop at 230 N., Michigan Ave., Chicago. This photo by Charles Gekler appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 12, 1959. From the McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

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