MELVILLE FAMILY – [MELVILL, Allan (1782-1832). Shop sign, New York, c.1818.]
A remarkable artifact: a sign from Herman Melville ’ s father ’ s shop— “Allan Melvill Silk and Fancy French Goods.” Up-and-coming merchant Allan Melvill married Maria Catherine Gansevoort (1791-1872), of the venerable Dutch family, on 4 October 1814. In 1818, the year before Herman was born, they settled on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan where Allan would use the French language skills and connections made during his time in Paris to specialize in importing quality French accessories—handkerchiefs and scarfs, silk garters and hose, horse skin gloves, cologne and lavender waters, etc. By all accounts Allan was a fanciful, flighty man who was forever awaiting a windfall; he later went bankrupt, throwing their genteel family into the poverty that colored much of Herman’s life. Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco writes: “[T]he yield from his talents was meager. Year by year, Allan turned his life into an almost sordid tale of reckless borrowing and groveling appeals for cash to carry him through to the next promised bonanza. He never became at ease in the increasingly impersonal system whereby European exports were sold in bulk to American auction houses, from which they were bought by wholesalers and distributed to the retail trade—a business in which good taste and personal charm counted for less than the ability to anticipate rising markets by buying low and falling prices by selling high” (pp.20-21). Delbanco also notes that aspects of Allan would appear many years later in White Jacket in the shape of the Commodore's secretary: “a remarkably urbane and polished man,” whose “magnificent” room was scattered with “gold shirt buttons, enameled pencil-cases, extraordinary fine French boots with soles no thicker than a sheet of scented notepaper, embroidered vests, incense-burning sealing-wax, alabaster statuettes of Venus and Adonis, tortoise-shell snuff-boxes, inlaid toilet cases, ivory-handled hair-brushes, and mother-of-pearl combs, and a hundred other luxurious appendages.” Following an ill-fated mission to pull himself from bankruptcy and establish a fur-and-cap store in 1832, Allan died at the age of 50, $26,000 in debt, when Herman was only 12 years old. 430 x 310mm, black painted metal bordered and lettered in gold (corroding to metal; some minor scratches to surface; small nail holes at each corner; tiny chip to lower edge). Custom chemise and quarter morocco slipcase.