Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum is one of the oldest private library institutions in America. It was founded in 1807, and it grew out of a slightly earlier organization known as the Anthology Society which had been formed in 1805 as the society began to grow in members. Its founders were many of the wealthiest and most influential people in Boston at the time. Including John S.J Gardiner, the best-know and leading episcopal clergyman in Boston; William Smith Shaw, who was the secretary of John Adams during his presidency and became the first head librarian of the Athenaeum. Peter Oxenbridge Thacher who was a Congregationalist minister and helped Draft the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780; William Tudor, a lawyer and well respected citizen of Boston, as well as many other of the high class men in Boston. The Athenaeum has known many places to be its home, from Joy’s Bulding on Congress st to The Perkin’s house and to Scollays building on Tremont st it has seen many places house its collections. Currently it resides in a building located at 10 1/2 Beacon st, almost directly across from the state house. It was built in 1847 and was designed by Edward Clarke Cabot, and has since become Cabot’s most faous and recognizable building.
As the Athenaeum grew it began to voraciously acquire books, art, and artifacts. This growth has led to it being one of the largest independent libraries currently w/ over 600,000 volumes. One thing the Athenaeum and its board have always sought was to join intellectual and social pleasures, to be clubbable. One of their chief aims was to find the right physical environment to read, so trustees hung art, placed statues, and carefully choreographed chairs around fireplaces to encourage better reading spaces. This led to the Athenaeum picking up and collecting artwork as its collection expanded. It houses over 100,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts. The Athenaeum continues to be a place of art with over 550 paintings and sculptures in the Athenæum’s collection today. it’s earliest significant acquisitions being fine plaster casts and, on occasion, superb marble copies of famous
After its founding, the Athenaeum had to choose something to represent them as it was customary for a new institution to choose an emblem, seal, or crest and in 1814, the trustees chose an image of three putti harvesting fruit in an idyllic orchard, with the motto “literarum fructus dulces” (sweet are the fruit of letters). The seal was adapted from an Italian one made by Michelangelo de La Chausse for a prince in 1701. The original image is similar to the adapted one, with the original Latin wording being “litterarum radices amarae, fructus autem dulces” (the roots of learning are bitter, but the fruit is sweet). This wording implies toil, risk, even distaste on the path to enlightenment, while the Athenaeum’s adaption simple suggests learnedness only pleases. Choosing this seal demonstrates three aspects of the institution’s history, which are: transatlantic bonds, a fervor for collecting, and the quest for the ideal setting for study and repose1. Their credo was: “to collect, preserve, and present”.

Images

Boston Athenaeum History section

Boston Athenaeum History section

A picture showing the History section of the Boston Athenaeum located on the third floor of the building. | Source: Boston Public Library, Print Department | Creator: Marr, Thomas E. (photographer) View File Details Page

Boston Athenaeum Beacon Street

Boston Athenaeum Beacon Street

An exterior shot of the Boston Athenaeum's facade. | Source: Boston Public Library, Print Department | Creator: Marr, Thomas E. (photographer) View File Details Page

Boston Athenaeum History section today

Boston Athenaeum History section today

Image of the history section of the Athenaeum as it was in 2016 | Creator: Shane McNamara View File Details Page

Board Room

Board Room

Picture of Athenaeum board room, where the Washington collection is held. | Creator: Shane McNamara View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Shane McNamara, Samuel Morin, Anthony Sposato(in memoriam), “Boston Athenaeum,” Boston History, accessed December 18, 2017, http://explorebostonhistory.org/items/show/12.

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