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Portrait of
Isaiah Thomas

General Information

Brief Account of the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society, founded in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Society maintains a research library of American history and culture in order to collect, preserve, and make available for study the printed record of the United States. AAS is the third oldest historical society in this country and the first to be national rather than regional in its purpose and in the scope of its collections.

With holdings numbering close to three million books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, prints, maps, and newspapers, this library preserves the largest single collection of printed source material relating to the history, literature, and culture of the first 250 years of what is now the United States. It specializes in the American period to 1877, and holds two-thirds of the total pieces known to have been printed in this country between 1640 and 1821, as well as the most useful source materials and reference works printed since that period. Its files of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American newspapers, numbering two million issues, are the finest anywhere.

The Society began with one man--Isaiah Thomas--a product of the American Revolution. Thomas (pictured above) was born in Boston in 1749 into a family so poor that at the age of six he was taken from his mother by the Overseers of the Poor and apprenticed to a printer.

Thomas' sympathies were with the popular faction during the genesis of the American Revolution. He made his newspaper, "The Massachusetts Spy," the voice of the Whig party. Three nights prior to the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Thomas smuggled his printing press out of Boston and set it up in Worcester. Thomas became the leading printer, editor, publisher, and bookseller in the United States after the war.

In 1802, Thomas retired and turned his attention to the preservation of the records of the origins and growth of the nation he had helped to make. Believing that the answers to the liveliest historical questions lie in the lives and thoughts of common people, one of his first steps was to make the rounds of newspapers of Revolutionary days to buy up their office files. In his search for historical material, he one day went into the largest music store in Boston and bought one copy of every ballad on its shelves. His purchase forms the cornerstone of our present great collection of early American music.

In the war year of 1812, Isaiah Thomas, with a group of like- minded men, founded the American Antiquarian Society. To the Society he gave the then-substantial sum of $20,000 and his library of 8,000 volumes. Worcester was chosen as the site because it was an inland town, safe from the guns of the British fleet.

Today, the AAS collections serve a growing community of historians, literary scholars, genealogists, graduate students, teachers, creative artists, and independent historical researchers.

Research undertaken at the AAS is published as scholarly books, biographies, historical novels, genealogies, plays, documentary films, and articles in a wide variety of periodicals.

Researchers come to the AAS from all parts of the United States, as well as Canada, Great Britain, Europe, and the Far East.

Detailed descriptions of the Society's resources may be found in "Under Its Generous Dome: The Collections and Programs of the American Antiquarian Society."


 

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American Antiquarian Society, 185 Salisbury Street
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Last updated February 10, 2003

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