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Boston Athenæum Archive

The Athenæum maintains not only its own, but also the institutional archive of two earlier Boston cultural institutions, the Anthology Society and the Boston Library Society,which merged with the Athenæum in 1939. The Boston Library Society records include information on early members, and catalogs, and reading lists from this early Boston institution. The Anthology Society records chronicle the evolution of a small group of scholars who became the founders of the Boston Athenæum. As the founders and proprietors of the Athenæum were also the dynamic builders of Federal Boston, the Athenæum archive preserves crucial records relative to 18th- and early 19th-century literary and cultural development in the city. Taken all together, this archive provides a complete and unbroken record of Boston's cultural development from 1792 until the present day.

Broadsides (An ongoing project)

Broadsides are single-sheet publications, historically printed on only one side. The Boston Athenæum’s collection of approximately 6,500 items is strongest in material from the 19th and 20th centuries. The American Civil War, poetry, governmental proclamations, musical ballads, theatrical programs and advertisements are the categories most strongly represented but a wide range of other political, religious, and historical subjects are included. Many of the broadsides are rare and some are unique due to their ephemeral nature.

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Drawings and Watercolors

This collection is comprised of watercolors, pastels, and drawings (charcoal, crayon, pen and ink, graphite) by artists working in New England from the early nineteenth century to the present. Artists represented in this collection include John Singleton Copley, Thomas Edwards, Seth Cheney, John Rubens Smith, Edward Clarke Cabot, Ellen Day Hale, John Singer Sargent, Arthur Rotch, Isaac Sprague, Allan Rohan Crite, and Kate Sullivan. The subject matter ranges from landscapes, portraits, urban views, and botanical or animal illustrations. The work of amateur or anonymous artists is also collected and provides context for understanding the development of the graphic arts in nineteenth-century America.

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Manuscripts

The manuscript collection of the Boston Athenæum grew steadily from the founding of the institution, but it was not until the stewardship of Librarian Charles Knowles Bolton (ca. 1900) that efforts were first made to develop and organize this material.

Today the Athenæum is interested in donations of unpublished material that in some way relate to the history of the institution, its founders, members, and its Beacon Hill neighborhood, or manuscripts which help document the influence of the Athenæum on the literary, social, political, and artistic culture of Boston.

The collection includes personal and family papers, genealogical records, organizational and business records, literary manuscripts and sketchbooks, as well as merchants’ records and ships’ logbooks. Significant manuscripts in the collection include the papers of Athenæum Trustee Samuel Eliot; the Revolutionary War-era papers of Ezekiel Price; the William Tudor papers; papers of Commodore Isaac Hull; and papers of architects Charles Bulfinch, Alexander Parris, George Minot Dexter, Nathaniel Bradlee, John H. Sturgis, Ogden Codman, and Richard Clipston Sturgis.

Maps

Maps, charts, atlases, and globes are an important part of the scholarly collections of the Boston Athenæum. This digital collection features representative items from the Athenæum cartographic holdings containing thousands of sheet maps, plans, and charts, and more than 600 bound atlases. They range in date from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries. After more than 200 years of acquiring maps, the cartographic collection juxtaposes common maps with items of great rarity.

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Photographs

Specializing in works by Boston-area photographic firms, this collection documents a myriad of photographic processes from daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes to cartes de visite, albumen, salted paper, silver gelatin, and digital prints. The important role played by Boston photographers in the history of the medium in America can be traced through works by Southworth & Hawes, John Adams Whipple, James Wallace Black, Lorenzo G. Chase, Augustine H. Folsom, John Soule, and Elmer Chickering among others. A significant subset of the collection includes portrait, travel, and art reference albums of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The changing streetscape of Boston in the twentieth century is visible in the photographs of John Murdoch, George M. Cushing, Jr., Paul Caponigro, and Irene Shwachman and works by contemporary regional photographers record the diverse face of New England in the twenty-first century. Internationally recognized photographers, including Felix Nadar, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francis Frith, and Eadweard Muybridge, form a smaller but important part of the collection.

Prints

The print collection documents the work of New England printmakers and contains a wide array of printmaking techniques, including engravings, etchings, aquatints, lithographs, wood cuts, and silk-screens. The collection is strongest in lithographs by nineteenth-century Boston firms and includes a large number of New England city views, landscapes, portraits, advertising posters, and sheet music covers. Boston was a center for the lithographic arts in the nineteenth century and the development of the medium is illustrated by the early black and white prints of the Pendleton Brothers, the commercial work of the highly prolific J. H. Bufford, and the dazzling chromolithographs of Louis Prang and the Forbes Lithographic Establishment. The graphic work of well-known artists associated with these firms such as Fitz Henry Lane, Benjamin Champney, and Winslow Homer, are robustly documented. The collection also contains examples of significant printmaking trends: wood-engravings for illustrated newspapers, etching revival prints, and World War I and travel posters. The work of contemporary New England printmakers form a small but growing part of this collection.

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Rare Books

The Rare Book Collection of the Boston Athenæum reflects the collecting interests of the Library as it has narrowed its focus from being encyclopedic in the 19th century to its current focus on the humanities. While there are surprising examples of early works on many subjects in the Athenæum, researchers should expect to find depth in certain specific subject areas.

Early American history is a particular strength with resources in the Library’s extraordinary collections of early American imprints, 18th and 19th century tracts, early United States government documents, early American broadsides, publications in Native American languages, early Boston newspapers, imprints of the Confederate States of America, and portions of the personal libraries of Cardinal Cheverus, Henry Knox, and George Washington.

The Library also houses the King’s Chapel Collection of mostly 17th century theological works, the Brimmer Collection of 18th and early 19th century European books on the fine arts, the Groome Gypsy Collection, the Danforth Alchemy Collection, and the Merrymount Press Collection.

Also, the rare book collection includes author’s collections featuring the works of Lord Byron, John Masefield, T. S. Eliot, and John Fowles, and an extensive collection on the art of the book including bookbinding, fine printing, and contemporary artists’ books.

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