Bassett Jones was a consulting engineer who graduated from MIT in 1898, who formed a consulting partnership specializing in elevator and lighting design and installation. He was also a major collector of materials dealing with the polar regions and he and Vilhjalmur Stefansson prepared a major exhibition of their collections at the Grolier Club in 1931-32. He joined the Explorers Club in 1926 when it was on 47 W 76th St. At the time of the exhibition he was living at 1088 Park Avenue and was acting President of the Explorers Club. Not all of his Explorers Club activities were entirely congenial: in April 1933 the NYTimes reported that he was being sued for $50,000 by a former librarian of the Club for asserting that the librarian had sold copies of the Club publication, As Told at the Explorers Club (New York, 1931),for his personal profit. The Times makes no further reference to this slander suit.
He came out of retirement in the 1930s to direct installation of the Empire State elevators in 1930, only on condition that they “do it my way.” At the same time he chaired a subcommittee of the Merchants Association which recommended the end of elevator speed regulations which had been limited to 700 feet per minute. In November 1931 he gave a talk at the AMNH on “Fishing Banks and Fishing.” In 1933 he was involved in a Columbia University study of the relationship of US debt structure to the decline in production during the depression. In 1935 he was spokesman for a move to separate Nantucket from the state of Massachusetts, arguing that it could govern itself much more economically. He also planned lighting for the 1939 World’s Fair, and according to the NYTimes, was a real estate operator. He loathed New York and called it “this center of organized discomfort” and spent as much time as possible at his home on Nantucket. In the 1950s he had an apartment at 325 E. 70th, but was living at 200 E 66th St. at the time of his death.
In 1953 he wrote a letter to the Times recommending that the Post Office charge first-class rates for junk mail, saying they might even operate at a profit and reduce the amount of useless mailings. A lengthy obituary appeared in the NYTimes on January 25, 1960.
His polar collection, Libris Polaris, was purchased by Columbia, probably in 1944 or 1945. In the Columbia file is an 120-page typed and priced catalogue of his polar library, dated 1944. It includes lots of single periodicals such as the National Geographic, usually at $1.25, as well as many high spots. The Aurora Australis, now the single most expensive polar icon as the first and possibly only book printed in Antarctica, is listed at $12.50, in a copy signed by both Shackleton and George Marston. George Back’s famous Narrative…is priced at $25. Copies of both those titles were on view in Books on Ice, the 2005 exhibition at the Grolier Club curated by David and Deirdre Stam.
An August 1, 1932, letter to Eric Morrell at Duke University from an anonymous correspondent, says that Jones expected to publish a bibliography of his polar books in association with the Grolier Club. The author claimed to have the largest private collection of polar books and one can only speculate on who that might be. Stefansson is the obvious candidate since he already had sizable holdings.
Bassett Jones was involved in two polar exhibitions, a large one at the Grolier Club in early 1932 and a smaller one at the Architectural League in January 1941. Exhibit labels for both shows are included in the Bassett Jones archives, about 150 for the Grolier show and about 30 for the much smaller Architectural League exhibit. Those from the Grolier Club include a miniature Club logo on the lower left corner. Notably absent from these cards, in both cases, were any citations to the books being exhibited, so that they provide a potential polar parlour game for any enthusiast. It’s easy to guess, for instance, that his presentation copy of a book about the Belgicagiven to Herbert Bridgman, with holograph notes by all the crew was Dr. Frederick Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night (1909). Harder to intuit without a good deal of research, if then, is “A rare item, but of doubtful accuracy. BALCH”.
Apparently Jones also displayed in the show whole groups of books without displaying title pages or contents. The labels suggest as much: “There is a large number of these small popularized general narratives, many of them full of errors, most of them worth little, but some of them scarce and a few rare.” Another label reads “Materials on Norwegian Whaling 1930-31,” just prior to the exhibit, while a third says “There is a large number of items bearing on Nansen and his work.” The promises of Adolphus W. Greely, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Marie Byrd Stafford, Emma de Long and others to provide large numbers of books and objects to the exhibit implies larger numbers of objects than the Club would consider in its present exhibition space. My own speculation is that the 1932 exhibit included both some rare items under glass but also bookcases filled with books which members were able to examine, though pictures of the exhibition hall at that time show no bookcases.
Some interesting realia were also on exhibit, including a painting by Albert Operti of Peary’s North Pole vessel, the SS Roosevelt, anchored at Cape Sheridan with full colors flying. Marie Peary let Jones know that the signal flags had been displayed in honor of her birthday in Greenland a few years earlier. Her mother, Josephine Diebietch Peary made a special trip from New Jersey to get from her lockbox in Washington Peary’s chronometer for the exhibit. She also lent the sledge flag which Peary had taken to the Pole. Safety matches and a couple of small rocks from Amundsen’s South Pole trip were recovered by Admiral Byrd and are now in the Libris Polaris collection. (Both are described in Laurence Gould’s Cold: the Record of an Antarctic Sledge Journey. New York, 1931, p. 218-222.) There were also the American and Explorers Club flags carried by Commander Richard Byrd and Sir Hubert Wilkins over the South Pole. (?—check that claim)
The makeshift labels for the Grolier show suggest that the exhibit was organized geographically with some general display labels such as General—Historical; Voyages; North Pole Attempts; The Franklin Search; Antarctica. And then there are specific places like Hudson Bay; Baffin Bay; Bering Straits; Spitsbergen; Ross Sea; Weddell Sea.
Unlike Books on Ice in 2005, Jones and Stefansson included a good number of manuscripts, including Stefansson’s own manuscript diaries from 1906-1910, the famous logs of George de Long on the famous and tragic Voyage of the Jeannette, loaned by his widow Emma, original field notes and sketches of Robert E. Peary’s North Pole trek, and the log of the Graf Zeppelin on her last flight over the Arctic(1931).