Isaiah Thomas by Greenwood
ISAIAH THOMAS SR. (1749-1831), June 1818
Ethan Allen Greenwood (1779-1856)
oil on panel
framed: 38 1/2 x 32 3/4 (97.790 x 83.1850)
signed at left: "Greenwood/pinx. 1818"
Bequest of Isaiah Thomas, 1831
Isaiah Thomas, the founder of the American Antiquarian Society,
his career as a seven-year-old apprentice to the printer Zechariah
(1724-76) of Boston. As a young man Thomas worked as a printer in
West Indies and Nova Scotia, before returning to Boston in 1770.
year he went into partnership with Fowle and began publication of
Whig newspaper The Massachusetts Spy, strongly supporting the
American independence. In April 1775, two days before the Battle
amid rumors that his press was to be seized, Thomas packed up his
press, and paper supply and moved to Worcester, a safe distance
British troops stationed in Boston. In Worcester, Thomas continued
print patriotic rhetoric and detailed descriptions of
battles in the Spy. The press, type cases, and imposing stone that
moved in such a rush from Boston may be seen at the American
After the war, Thomas continued to live and work in Worcester.
with former apprentices, he owned several printing offices and
as well as paper mills and a bindery, employing over one hundred
people. Thomas published newspapers, broadsides, sheet music,
pamphlets, and a yearly almanac. He produced over four hundred
for both adult and juvenile readers, including the first
in America and the first American edition of Mother Goose's Melody
Thomas was Worcester's postmaster from 1775 to 1801. He joined the
of Freemasons in Worcester in 1793 and became Grand Master of
In that year, at the age of fifty-three, Thomas retired to
interests in the history of the young nation and in the origins of
This resulted in the a two-volume work, The History of Printing in
(1810), that remains one of the seminal reference books for the
of typography and printing. Several editions of this important
may be found in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society
with hundreds of examples of Thomas's work as a printer, including
runs of the Massachusetts Spy and Thomas's almanacs, as well as
of his pamphlets, broadsides, and books for children. In addition,
Thomas's personal papers, which contain his private and business
diaries, and legal documents are part of the Society's manuscript
Ten years after his retirement, in 1812, Thomas founded the
Antiquarian Society, incorporating it that same year with a group
Massachusetts residents.(5) Explaining the need for such an
Thomas wrote: "We cannot obtain a knowledge of those who are
after us, nor are we certain what will be the events of future
as it is in our power, so it should be our duty, to bestow on
that which they cannot give to us, but which they may enlarge and
and transmit to those who shall succeed them."(6) Thomas was
Society's leader, serving as the first librarian, director and
As a private collector, he purchased a large cache of Mather
including portions of the famous Mather library and donated the
to the Society. Thomas eventually gave his entire private library
manuscripts, and newspapers to the American Antiquarian Society,
with a cash bequest and the Society's first building. He also
the custom of electing collectors of books and materials to
in the Society, with the expectation that they would consider
their collections to the Society.(7) His foresight set the stage
formation of an unparalleled resource for historical research at
Antiquarian Society's collection to become.
This portrait of Isaiah Thomas by Ethan Allen Greenwood was
six years after the founding of the American Antiquarian Society.
probably first came to Thomas's attention after the artist
likeness of his son Isaiah Thomas Jr., in March of 1818. In that
Greenwood was establishing the Gallery of Fine Arts in Boston that
copies of famous European paintings and portraits of well-known
The portrait of Isaiah Thomas painted in May 1818 was one of
New Englanders. Thomas recorded in his diary, "At the request
Mr. Greenwood, Portrait Painter in Boston, sat for him to take my
Mr. G. is a member of a new Society in Boston called the Fine
This was the first of five sittings for this portrait.(10) The
portrait, which remained the property of Greenwood, evidently
Thomas and he commissioned the artist to paint his portrait again
following month. "Engaged Mr. Greenwood to take my Likeness,
at his request five weeks since, when he finished one for himself.
again today for him to take one for myself. Sat six times for this
picture. Thomas paid Greenwood $60.00 for it."(11) The
in the Thomas home in Worcester and was bequeathed to the American
Society at Isaiah Thomas's death.(12)
Read more about Isaiah
Thomas at Mass Moments, a daily almanac of
Massachusetts history created by the Massachusetts Foundation for the
1) Nichols's annotated offprint version of this
housed at the American Antiquarian Society. In it, he records
of ownership and provenance of various Thomas portraits that
2) For more on early printing presses including the
at AAS, see Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer
University Press of Virginia, 1964), 64-66, 77.
3) For more on Thomas, see Charles L. Nichols, Isaiah
Printer, Writer, & Collector (Boston: Club of Odd Volumes,
4) Isaiah Thomas Papers, 1748-1874, American Antiquarian
5) There are portraits of four of the twenty-seven
in the collection: Isaiah Thomas, Sr., Isaiah Thomas, Jr., Aaron
D.D. , and William Paine, D.D.The other founders were: Levi
Levi Lincoln, Jr., Harrison Gray Otis, Timothy Bigelow, Nathaniel
Edward Bangs, J.T. Kirkland, Jonathan H. Lyman, M.D., Elijah H.
Elisha Hammond, Timothy Williams, William D. Peck, John Lowell
his name be removed), Edmund Dwight, Eleazar James, William S.
Blake, Samuel Burnside Benjamin Russell, Redford Webster, Ebenezer
Andrews, and William Wells. There is an image of Sophia Burnside,
none of her spouse.
6) Isaiah Thomas, Sr., Account of the American
(Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1813): 4.
7) For more on the early history of the American
Society, see Nancy Burkett and John B. Hench, eds., Under its
Dome, The Collections and Programs of the American Antiquarian
(Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1992).
8) Georgia Brady Barnhill, 'Extracts from the Journals of
Allen Greenwood: Portrait Painter and Museum Proprietor,'
of the American Antiquarian Society 103 (April 1993): 91-178.
9) Isaiah Thomas Diary, May 20, 1818, Isaiah Thomas
10) Isaiah Thomas Diary, May 21-23 and 25, 1818.
11) Isaiah Thomas Diary, June 29, 1818; Ethan Allen
receipt, February 27, 1819, Isaiah Thomas Papers 1748-1874.
was evidently given a five dollar deposit in June as the receipt
'[R]eceived of Isaiah Thomas by the hand of Isaiah Thomas, Jr.,
dollars, in full for painting a Portrait, and for frame to the
of Picture and frame $60.00.'
12) During his lifetime, Thomas had two copies of
portrait made and three more copies were taken after his death.
Weis, 'Portraits in the American Antiquarian Society,' Proceedings
the American Antiquarian Society 56 (April 1946): 107-8; and
Nichols, The Portraits of Isaiah Thomas (Worcester: American
Society, 1921), 4-7.
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Last updated March 29, 2006