Kristen Highland: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society

tags: New York City, American Antiquarian Society, exhibition, Grolier Club



After musing among the old buildings and tombstones of Boston on a hot August day in 1834, Christopher Columbus Baldwin, librarian for the American Antiquarian Society, exclaimed in his diary, "How much of fashion, wealth, wit, and learning are now buried in oblivion!" This statement served as a rallying call for a unique rescue mission on a grand scale. A mission to rescue the present—to thwart the obscuring powers of time and preserve the materials of "fashion, wealth, wit, and learning" for future generations. Baldwin, along with a host of other individuals, made this mission their life's work and in so doing built the remarkable collections of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS). Their stories, as well as the things they collected, were recently displayed in an exhibition at New York City's Grolier Club, "In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society," and in its accompanying catalogue. Though the physical exhibition has closed, "In Pursuit of a Vision" and its remarkable collected objects remain accessible in an online exhibition.

This goal—to collect and preserve the materials of the present—crafted not simply one vision of American history and culture, that of a nascent nation or a literary laboratory, for instance, but rather a multitude of at once complementary and competing versions of American culture. That so many visions can be contained in one exhibition is the particular strength not only of this show, but also of the American Antiquarian Society itself. Founded in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts, by printer Isaiah Thomas, the AAS was intended as a learned society devoted to "American Antiquities, natural, artificial, and literary" (14). Thomas' initial donations documenting early American print culture, a focus of the opening display of the exhibit, demonstrate the broadly inclusive early collection practices that contributed to the breadth and depth of the AAS's holdings. Along with his two-volume History of Printing in America, published in 1810, a 1787 print type specimen book, as well as contemporary newspapers and broadsides gathered nationwide, Thomas also contributed a three-volume collection of popular songs and ballads culled from the shops and streets of early nineteenth-century Boston. Thomas' rationale for inclusion: "to shew what articles of this kind are in vogue with the Vulgar at this time" (23). Years later, these "vulgar" articles, now more politely termed "popular literature," are indeed valuable and much-studied historical artifacts. This inclusive collecting vision, one that sought to value the materials of the present no matter how they might be perceived or used in the future, defined the AAS's early mission and cast the institution as a chronicler and creator of American histories....




comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list