By Nicholas Clark
Worcester, Massachusetts truly does bear red, white, and blue as the heart of the Commonwealth. Throughout the United States’ history, it has been a hub for suffrage movements, abolitionists, patriots, as well as historians and archive keeping.
One of the most important things we as humans have done that makes us so unique is to record our history, and Worcester has lead the nation in housing the oldest historical society with a national focus.
Unfortunately, most Worcester residents seem to be unaware of this historical and academic gem that we hold in our city.
The American Antiquarian Society is located at the corner of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street – overlooked by many who drive by every single day. The towering white pillars along the brick façade have an elegant appearance and scholarly feel.
The revolutionary patriot and printer, Isaiah Thomas, founded the society in 1812. He was also the founder and publisher of the Massachusetts Spy (known as the Worcester Spy post-1770) – a patriot newspaper published in Boston and Worcester.
Isaiah Thomas was able to found the society through an act of the Massachusetts General Court and his own funds. He was able to supply the Society with over 8,000 books and literary pieces from his own collection as a publisher. He wanted to create a society that valued American history as much as he did and to preserve it long after he was gone – and this is just what the Society did.
When established in 1812, it was the third historical society in the United States. However, it was the only one with a national focus and soon grew to house the largest collection of antiquities.
The American Antiquarian Society sets precedents as a historical society, holding the largest collection of books, pamphlets, and literature printed from 1640 through 1876. Two-thirds of books printed in the United States (North American British colonies) before 1820 reside there. An astounding 6 of the 10 paper items printed in the first 100 years are secured here.
With over 25 miles of shelves, the hefty collection of over 4 million antiquities can be accessed by anyone interested.
Some of the most notable artifacts contained include first edition journals of Lewis and Clark’s expedition from the early 19th century, as well as the first printed bible in British North America, printed in 1663.
Some other treasures held by the society include the only copy of a “Pamela,” a book praised in England, which was published and sold by patriot Benjamin Franklin. A first copy of the first book printed in the United States resides here; “Bay Psalm Book” had a copy sold at auction for over 14 million dollars in recent years.
With all of these artifacts significant to the history of the United States before and after the Revolution, it is no surprise to discover how many patriots and notable Americans were part of the society.
With Isaiah Thomas the founder, this Society was practically a staple of patriotism, with other members such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison.
Aside from many of this nation’s founding fathers being a part of the Antiquarian Society, 14 of this nation’s presidents have also been a member – even some of the more recent presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
With all of this history and national significance in preserving our country’s rich history as a young nation, it is an honor that the Society is held in the city of Worcester.
The American Antiquarian Society humbly welcomes all of the public to enter their building and take a trip into the American literary past. Doubling as a historical archive collection and an academic research hub, the society serves as a center for knowledge and timeless Americana.