- Historic Sites
A Good Home For Old Words
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
Christopher Columbus Baldwin, who became librarian in 1832, had the same sort of zest and energy. He interested himself particularly in the newspaper collection (now the largest in the country) and in pamphlets. He acquired from one notable foray in the attics of the eccentric Thomas Wallcut two-and-a-quarter tons of pamphlets and manuscripts (including Cotton Mather’s diaries). Though at the time the Society’s council looked at this haul with less than enthusiasm, it is now regarded as one of the most important of the nineteenth-century acquisitions. His successor, Samuel Foster Haven, held office for forty-three years and almost doubled the number of books in the library. But the record for length of tenure is held by Clarence S. Brigham. Appointed when he was thirty, he was librarian for fifty-one years and began in 1908 with a colossal spring-cleaning. Until then the Society’s historical interests had extended to archaeology and anthropology, and it had in the course of nearly a century accumulated a staggering variety of objects. (Baldwin had complained about the bureaux and chests that were stuffed with old clothes.) The visitor to the Victorian building was confronted not only by a copy of Michelangelo’s “Moses” and other plastic casts, but Indian, Icelandic and Hawaiian artefacts and relics from Yucatan including a colossal reproduction of a temple. Brigham made short work of all these, and only those historical objects that had some relevance to the books and manuscripts were allowed to remain. He also limited the fields of interest of the library to areas in which it was already particularly strong. Newspapers were one of these, and he not only became an aggressive collector but their chief bibliographer. His History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 appeared in 1954—one of the Society’s many contributions to bibliographical knowledge, which include Early American Imprints 1639-1800 , a microprint edition of every extant book, pamphlet and broadside printed in America before 1801.
Purged of what Brigham had decreed were irrelevancies, the Society moved to its present premises in 1910 and settled down to being a research library. Its holdings are still of enormous variety. There are almanacs, ballads, bibles, bookplates, political cartoons, cookery books, city and trade directories, genealogies, maps, topographical engravings, valentines, trade catalogues, music, stereoscopic views, lottery tickets, watch-papers and much else in addition to the books, periodicals and newspapers that cover the history of America from its earliest beginnings to 1877.
Of early children’s books, the American Antiquarian Society possesses most that there are to be possessed.
And there are the children’s books. Before ever I had even worked out where Worcester was I had seen the recurrent initials “MWA” (standing for “Massachusetts Worcester Antiquarian” in the Library of Congress codification) in d’Alté Welch’s Bibliography of American Children’s Books Printed Prior to 1820 , indicating that the American Antiquarian Society possessed most of what there was to be possessed. … Isaiah Thomas was one of the first American printers to see the commercial possibilities of books to entertain the young, and in the 178Os he had … put out Worcester editions of a number of English “juveniles.” Some of the originals have vanished from England and are only known in the American editions. Naturally, the AAS is rich in these (though they were not given by Thomas himself, who does not appear to have taken his juvenile publishing very seriously). It is also credited with possessing the most elusive ghost volume in the history of American letters, a collection of nursery rhymes called Songs for the Nursery or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children , supposedly published in Boston in 1719, which if found would establish that Mother Goose was a historical figure (the publisher’s mother-in-law) and American. The evidence for the book’s existence depends on the word of one literary gentleman who apparently saw it in the AAS and who was dead by the time the claim was made in 1860. The Society has in the past searched for it repeatedly, and supporters of the legend have not presumably accepted that the book must have been irretrievably mislaid, if not destroyed. (Such things do happen, of course. A large cache of uncatalogued early children’s books were recently found in a cupboard at Boston Public Library, where they had been locked up for a hundred years.)
Despite its air of graceful amateurism, the American Antiquarian Society is steelily efficient, from its reader services to its book conservation. It is, in addition, one of the few American institutions that actually expect to communicate by letter, and it does so by return of post—on paper apparently designed by an eighteenth-century writing master … . Other institutions may have librarians with comparable knowledge and expertise, but none put it so generously at the disposal of its readers.