What you see: The cover of the January 1, 1905 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, from an early 20th-century group of 14 issues of the specialist magazine. Swann estimates the group at $1,500 to $2,500.
What is Gleanings in Bee Culture, and why is it important? It is a specialist magazine, founded in 1869 by Amos Ives Root, a god of the beekeeping world. It published the first eyewitness account of a successful airplane flight by the Wright brothers. Root died in 1923, but his magazine still publishes under the name Bee Culture.
Wait, back up. The first published account of a successful airplane flight was in a beekeeping journal? Yes. Yes, it was.
How did that happen? Root was a fan of technology, and the Wright brothers’ experiments in aviation represented the cutting edge of technology at the turn of the 20th century. Root befriended the brothers, who were fellow Ohioans, and he witnessed a successful flight in September, 1904 at Huffman Prairie in Ohio (he was not present for the first successful flight, which happened on December 17, 1903). Protective of their invention and stung by a badly garbled press account of a previous test, the brothers did not invite any reporters to watch them work. But they were comfortable with Root writing about the first flight for Our Homes, a column he included in Gleanings in Bee Culture. “They probably recognized Root as a kindred spirit, and felt he wouldn’t leak anything they didn’t want leaked,” says Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana for Swann.
How skilled an observer was Root? “He was an extremely curious and interested amateur. He did his best to understand the mechanism and asked a bunch of questions,” says Stattler, who adds that Root was 65 at the time of the September 1904 flight. “He understood about five percent of what they said. My impression is he probably understood it better than I’d have been able to.”
How many times did Root write about the flight that he saw? Twice. The first article ran more than three pages and had no illustrations. The second, which appeared two weeks later, was shorter and included a photograph of a Wright plane without its engine. “I suspect they didn’t want him publishing a picture of the full machine,” Stattler says. “I don’t get the impression that his account was instantly recognized as important around the world. Gleanings in Bee Culture had a very small, specialized readership. I get the impression that it was not taken especially seriously.”
How often do these issues of Gleanings in Bee Culture come up at auction? This offering at Swann is the first. Stattler reports that Sotheby’s offered a group of issues in 1968, but it did not include the columns that describe the flight.
Why offer 14 issues? Why not offer just the ones with the columns that talk about the flight? Stattler explains that the issues come from a home that had several years’ worth of Gleanings in Bee Culture squirreled away. “I thought it would be interesting to have a few issues from before the columns and after, as context,” he says. Stattler describes the Our Homes column as being an Andy Rooney-style celebration of the quirks of the world, but Root definitely realized he’d seen something world-changing. “He strongly emphasized it. He realized he was privileged to witness an extremely important event, and he recognized that his platform was not the typical for disseminating that information.”
Do you have any favorite passages from the columns? Stattler cited this paragraph from the January 1, 1905 entry: ‘Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say—a locomotive made of aluminum. Well, now, imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw. The younger brother bade me move to one side for fear it might come down suddenly; but I tell you, friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.’
These issues have never come to auction before, so they’re guaranteed to set a record when they sell. What do you think will happen? “I’ve got interest from clients already,” he says. “It’s such a quirky publication. It will probably go beyond its estimate, but how far beyond, I don’t know.”
You can follow Swann Auction Galleries on Twitter and Instagram. Bee Culture is on Twitter and Instagram as well. Root Candles, another entity founded by Root that survives to this day, devotes a page on its website to Ames Root and the Wright Brothers. And you can read the full text of all of Root’s writings on the Wright brothers’ flight courtesy of the website for the PBS program NOVA.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.