Published: October 2, 2012
In the still-early days of the Republic, Worcester, Mass., patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas recognized the importance of the artifacts of American history. While Thomas’s original notion was to document the output of the American press, he aimed also to preserve and augment his own extensive collections. The result was the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), established in 1812 with the mission “to encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country, and of curious and valuable productions in Art and Nature [that] have a tendency to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge.”
What sprang from one man’s forethought is today the highly respected repository of one of the world’s most important collections of some three million books, pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides and ephemera, including more than half of all books and pamphlets published in America before 1821.
The American Antiquarian Society now celebrates its 200th year with “In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society,” on view at the Grolier Club. The exhibition, comprising some 185 pieces, showcases the richness of the AAS collections. It focuses on the visionaries whose foresight and contributions over two centuries have made it a principal research center with holdings that are a rich resource of primary materials for historians and other scholars.
Additionally, “In Pursuit of a Vision” brings to the fore the Grolier Club, at 128 years a comparative newcomer, but a club formed to promote the study, collection and appreciation of books and works on paper. That one institution exhibits the collection of another demonstrates the dovetailing of their respective missions.
The American Antiquarian Society was the brainchild of Isaiah Thomas, born in Boston in 1749, who, at age six and with only six weeks of schooling, was apprenticed to Boston printer Zechariah Fowle. Thomas taught himself to read by setting type †his first typesetting effort completed at the age of six was the 1755 broadside “The Lawyer’s Pedigree.” As a 15-year-old apprentice, Thomas printed the miniature chapbook Tom Thumb’s Play-Book; to Teach Children Their Letters as Soon as They Can Speak in 1764. It was just the beginning of a gathering of an impressive children’s literature collection.
By 1770 Thomas and Fowle began publishing The Massachusetts Spy , a voice for liberty. Fowle was a largely disinterested printer, but his apprentice was vitally involved. After unwelcome notice on the part of British authorities and Thomas’s role in alarming Middlesex County about the march of the British, Thomas removed himself and his press to Worcester, where he continued to publish. Thomas also published a 23-page official account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord; his own copy inscribed by him as the first book printed in Worcester is on view.
Thomas’s printing business prospered, making it one of the largest in the country; the other was that of Philadelphian Matthew Carey. By 1800, with his business well established, Thomas embarked on a survey of publishing in America since its beginning. To that end he acquired early books, pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers and then produced the landmark two-volume work The History of Printing in America, with a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers.
From that effort he moved to establish the AAS in order to gather and preserve American history. Despite the relative youth of the country, Thomas’s goal was daunting. He donated 2,650 titles, supplementing that gift with many others throughout his life. In 1819, he supplied the land, $2,000 and 150,000 bricks for the construction of the first Antiquarian Hall in Worcester, and made provisions in his will for its continued existence.
Collectors and donors over the history of AAS were of two kinds, notes curator Lauren Hewes of the AAS. There were those who are amassers on a grand scale, and at the opposite end of the spectrum were the collectors with laserlike focus on one arena.
The collectors who were the early bulwarks of AAS were of each type. Thomas was what Hewes describes as a “democratic collector”; that is, he focused on objects for themselves, irrespective of their historic value.
Hannah Mather Crocker, daughter of Samuel Mather and granddaughter of Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, niece of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson Jr, wife of Boston minister Joseph Crocker and mother of ten, was another important early donor. Once her children were grown, she began writing. Her most notable work was her 1818 Observations on the Real Rights of Women, with their Appropriate Duties, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason and Common Sense . She donated considerable numbers of books, manuscripts and artifacts, including the part of the Mather Family Library that she possessed, becoming the most frequent donor to AAS in its early years.
She also contributed a group of early portraits of Richard, Increase, Cotton and Samuel Mather, along with a Seventeenth Century child’s highchair that descended in the family.
Salem minister William Bentley, who chronicled early Salem in stunning detail between 1785 and 1819, bequeathed his 1,100-volume library, some 700 of which were in German, on his death in 1819. Prior to that, he donated his copy of the 1640 Whole Booke of Psalmes , the first book printed in the country. Bentley also collected objects for his cabinet of curiosity and bequeathed a second state woodcut of Richard Mather by John Foster of Boston, circa 1670, the first woodcut and first portrait print in America. Bentley’s cabinet of curiosities contained a carved and painted pine bust of John Winthrop by Samuel McIntire that the artist based on Bentley’s portrait miniature of Winthrop.
Thomas’s will directed that a librarian and cabinet keeper be hired. To that effect, a year after his 1831 death, AAS member since 1827 Christopher Columbus Baldwin was engaged. Baldwin brilliantly acquired a rich trove of more than two tons of books, pamphlets and manuscripts from prodigious Boston antiquarian and writer Thomas Wallcut that he removed from a Boston whale oil warehouse. Among his takings there was the 41st year of the diary of Cotton Mather. Baldwin also initiated the catalog of the AAS. He died young in 1835 after only four years as librarian, but his imprint on the society was profound. Among his other feats was to induce the librarian of the Boston Athenaeum to part with all duplicate pamphlets for the AAS collections.
Two Worcester sisters, Lucy and Sarah Chase, went to Virginia in 1863 to teach in freedmen’s schools. Well endowed with the collecting gene, they gathered such historic materials as the accounts of a Richmond slave dealer, papers from Jefferson Davis’s office and souvenirs (including coffee beans) from General Grant’s headquarters.
Other diligent collectors and AAS benefactors included the great accumulator George Brinley, who acquired the American Indian collection of Boston bookseller Samuel G. Drake and later, when prices for scrap paper were driven high by the Civil War, made deals with paper dealers in Hartford that allowed him to inspect paper about to be pulped †an exercise that paid off handsomely in the acquisition of rarities.
Rhode Island and New York book collector Joseph J. Cooke bought heavily at auction in the 1870s. He focused on American history, particularly the Revolutionary War and George Washington.
Brinley and Cooke stipulated in their wills that their collections be sold at auction, with a number of libraries given a credit in order to make purchases. The AAS acquired 1,667 volumes, 1,544 pamphlets and other paper of importance from among the 25,000 volumes in the Brinley auctions. From the Cooke sales, it purchased rare American history paper and imprints to enhance the collections.
By the early Twentieth Century, the AAS, now a well-established, learned society and research facility, reassessed its collecting methodology. No longer would “omnium gatherum” suffice. Under the direction of Clarence S. Brigham, in 1908 the collections increased from about 100,000 to 600,000 volumes and the society was the major holder of American imprints from before 1821. Brigham was a skilled networker and attracted new collectors, dealers and scholars. Among them was Boston newspaper publisher Charles Henry Taylor, whose special focus was lithography.
As that technique was being eclipsed by photomechanical methods, he was farsighted enough to gather pieces he knew would acquire historical significance. Beginning in the 1920s and for the rest of his life, Taylor made quarterly donations of books and prints with detailed notes as to their significance. He also donated funds to support a card catalog for the lithography collections.
Brigham also attracted the vast almanac collections of Samuel Lyman Monson; Edward Larocque Tinker’s Louisiana imprints detailing French and Creole imprints; Frank J. Metcalf’s hymnals; and Thomas Olive Mabbott’s imprints relating to Edgar Allan Poe that included an impressive collection of flash press titles.
When Brigham realized that the AAS had few catalogs of book auctions or book dealers, he turned his attention to that arena and today it is robust.
The Twentieth Century also saw an expansion of the society collections to achieve a geographic balance with the inclusion of Western Americana. Technology arrived here, allowing for complete bibliographies of the collection, cataloging and digitization.
“In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society” remains on view through November 17 at the Grolier Club at 47 East 60th Street. For information, 212-838-6690 or www.grolierclub.org .
The American Antiquarian Society is at 185 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Mass. For information, 508-471-5221 or www.americanantiquarian.org .
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