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A Good Home For Old Words

July 2024
6min read

The American Antiquarian Society, which houses two-thirds of all the material known to have been published in this country from 1640 to 1821, this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Located in Worcester, Massachusetts, it is an organization of great distinction as well as unique gentility. Its membership, limited to five hundred at any one time, has included twelve Presidents of the United States and forty-eight Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.

The work as well as the atmosphere of this superlative depository of our history was described by an appreciative English scholar of children’s literature who originally published her impressions of the society in the London Times Literary Supplement:

Those who are used to working in the rare-book rooms of American libraries behind bullet-proof glass and electronically controlled doors, scanned by closed-circuit television and frisked by armed guards, cannot fail to be struck by the gentlemanly way in which the American Antiquarian Society, the chief repository of early American historical material, treats its readers, or by the tranquillity of its reading-room, in which it is often difficult to discern other readers, even at what the library avers to be high season… .

Towards the end of Salisbury Street [in Worcester, Massachusetts] are the porticoed classical premises which the Society has occupied since 1910. It is rather like arriving at a club or a country house. There is a subdued but cordial welcome from a courtly major domo who presents the readers’ register with the air of a trusted family servant. Within are fine examples of colonial furniture and portraiture—objects which the Society has acquired almost absent-mindedly over the years. Melodious clocks chime out the quarters and the hours. The service is deft, rapid and personal—your books appear unsolicited on your desk the instant you are seen advancing over the threshold. The reading-room is comfortably small; the catalogues, issue desk and all the reference books you need are only a step from your chair. If American history is what you are after, then this must be the most agreeable library in the world.

Across the road is the private house (the last owner’s family portraits still hanging on the walls) which the Society has recently acquired and adapted to lodge five readers—its Fellows, for the most part—working on long-term projects, who before this would have had to find their own accommodation....There is a lot to be learnt from the other inhabitants of the Goddard-Daniels house....One was studying the book-trade in eighteenth-century America, one pursuing early Vermont families, a third scrutinizing old almanacs for mention of weather, a fourth reading Increase Mather’s journal, a fifth early children’s books.

When one’s research is in American history, this must be the most agreeable library in the world.

We were grateful for the comfort of the Goddard-Daniels house, since many of our hours were spent there. The gentlemanliness of the Society extends to the hours it keeps: it is open only until five o’clock, and closed the whole weekend....But you are allowed to carry off for weekend reading such books as are still in print—though it has to be said that replaceable material plays a very small part here, where so many of the holdings are unique items.

The American Antiquarian Society was founded by Isaiah Thomas who, fleeing from Boston and the retribution of the English during the American Revolution, had brought his patriot newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, his printing press and his types to Worcester in 1775. He set up shop and remained there for fifty-six years, creating the principal printing and publishing business in the country, which eventually included newspapers, a paper mill, a bindery and bookshops. He was also a scholar and collector, one of the first to realize the historical value of ephemeral printing. He set out, for instance, to buy up the office files of every Revolutionary newspaper, and bought from a Boston music shop one copy of every ballad in stock. In 1812, two years after his History of Printing in America had appeared, he petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for permission to establish a society to which he proposed to transfer his library. The Society was incorporated in October, and a few months later he announced the gift of his library. As the war of 1812 was then in progress, Worcester, forty miles from the sea and the danger of enemy bombardment, was held to be a reasonably safe place for a collection which even then was realized to be irreplaceable. Thomas was the Society’s first president and a very active one. In assisting it to collect and preserve “every variety of book, pamphlet and manuscript that might be valuable in illustrating any and all parts of American history” he himself gave more than $20,000 and between seven and eight thousand books, including the library of the Mather family—“unquestionably the oldest in New England” he said proudly in his diary—which he bought from one of Cotton Mather’s granddaughters. When the Society’s holdings grew too large to be accommodated in his own house he contributed a site and money to build new premises, which were completed in 1820. His zeal for the well-being of the institution he had founded continued to the end. Three years before his death, when he was seventy-nine, he was cutting the grass.


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.

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