Isaiah Thomas as Printer, Collector, Historian and Benefactor
The American Antiquarian Society owes its existence to Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), printer, journalist, publisher, and philanthropist. The Society was Thomas’s vision, and from the time of its founding in 1812 until his death, he was its principal benefactor. Thomas gave AAS its founding library, its first building, and funds for the support of its first librarians.
Thomas built a sizable printing and publishing empire, matched in size only by that of Mathew Carey in Philadelphia. In 1810 he published A History of Printing in America. Two years later he founded the American Antiquarian Society, the third historical society to be founded in the United States and the first intended to be national in scope. Upon AAS’s founding Thomas made an initial gift of 2,650 titles which he continued to augment until his death. The first Antiquarian Hall was built in 1819; Thomas supplied the land, $2,000, and 150,000 bricks. He also sought gifts from others on behalf of AAS, cultivating collectors whom he hoped would add to the collection.
Thomas provided in his will for the continued health of the Society. His total bequest to AAS amounted to more than $30,000, including land, a building, and collection materials, along with an additional $12,000, the interest of which was to pay a librarian’s salary. This support allowed AAS to enter its third decade as a healthy, active organization.