Acknowledgement of invitation from John W. Francis. New York Book Publishers Association records. Manuscripts and Archives Division. "Doctor Francis, although by no means a littérateur, cannot well be omitted in an account of the New York literati." - Edgar Allen Poe, in The Literati of New York, published in Godey's Magazine (1846)This week, the literary and publishing community gathers on the West Side for the annual event that is Bookexpo America, known as BEA. This annual industry conference also doubles as a gathering of author-celebrities and prominent literati. After the day's trade events, book signings and speaking events, the festive atmosphere migrates downtown for a series of parties thrown by publishing houses and literary magazines. BEA and its accompanying social events is the latest iteration of a tradition that combines bookselling with creative fêtes, which began over a century-and-a-half ago in New York.
The New York Book Publishers Association was created in 1855 to systematize the method in which books were produced and distributed to the increasingly literate, emergent American middle-class. On September 18 of that year, the association of publishers and booksellers held their first trade fair at New York's Crystal Palace, a glass and cast-iron structure which once welcomed the public in Bryant Park (then Reservoir Square). The building took direct inspiration (and borrowed the name) from the structure erected in Hyde Park, London for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851, the very structure of which would become emblematic of the rise of material culture.
Bill of Fare, as published in American Publishers' Circular (September 29, 1855)After the sale, the Association threw a publicity event, the likes of which have become a tradition in the publishing industry. On September 27, six hundred members of the literati—writers, publishers, booksellers, editors, ministers, politicians, lawyers, members of the press—came to the north nave of the Crystal Palace to celebrate the profession at the Fruit Festival. A number of topical toasts were given, lauding the technological innovations in the field and the ubiquity of reading. The decorations of the pavilion included red, white, and blue bunting and gas-illuminations ("HONOR TO GENIUS," one broadcasted). At six long tables, the prominent individuals dined on ripe fruits, confectionery, ornamental pastries, and sculptural cold meat dishes.
The truly notable element of the Fruit Festival is its role as celebrity spectacle. The spectacle element of the Fruit Festival is not only demarcated by the structure around it and the lavishness of the menu, however also by fanfare. The event is that it was open to the public—three hundred ticket-holders (always distinguished as nine-tenths women in press of the time and scholarly discussions) watched the proceedings from the gallery around the north nave of the Crystal Palace. In addition to the chance to glimpse aging Washington Irving, audience members were able to vicariously participate in the pageantry of the evening.