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Isaiah Thomas by Greenwood


Isaiah Thomas



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
Weis #117
Hewes #123

More information

Isaiah Thomas, the founder of the American Antiquarian Society, began his career as a seven-year-old apprentice to the printer Zechariah Fowle (1724-76) of Boston. As a young man Thomas worked as a printer in the West Indies and Nova Scotia, before returning to Boston in 1770. That year he went into partnership with Fowle and began publication of the Whig newspaper The Massachusetts Spy, strongly supporting the cause of American independence. In April 1775, two days before the Battle of Lexington, amid rumors that his press was to be seized, Thomas packed up his type, press, and paper supply and moved to Worcester, a safe distance from the British troops stationed in Boston. In Worcester, Thomas continued to print patriotic rhetoric and detailed descriptions of Revolutionary War battles in the Spy. The press, type cases, and imposing stone that he moved in such a rush from Boston may be seen at the American Antiquarian Society.(2)

After the war, Thomas continued to live and work in Worcester. In partnership with former apprentices, he owned several printing offices and bookstores, as well as paper mills and a bindery, employing over one hundred and fifty people. Thomas published newspapers, broadsides, sheet music, periodicals, pamphlets, and a yearly almanac. He produced over four hundred book titles for both adult and juvenile readers, including the first dictionary printed in America and the first American edition of Mother Goose's Melody (1786). Thomas was Worcester's postmaster from 1775 to 1801. He joined the Order of Freemasons in Worcester in 1793 and became Grand Master of Massachusetts in 1802.(3)

In that year, at the age of fifty-three, Thomas retired to pursue his interests in the history of the young nation and in the origins of printing. This resulted in the a two-volume work, The History of Printing in America (1810), that remains one of the seminal reference books for the history of typography and printing. Several editions of this important publication may be found in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society along with hundreds of examples of Thomas's work as a printer, including complete runs of the Massachusetts Spy and Thomas's almanacs, as well as dozens of his pamphlets, broadsides, and books for children. In addition, Isaiah Thomas's personal papers, which contain his private and business correspondence, diaries, and legal documents are part of the Society's manuscript collection.(4)

Ten years after his retirement, in 1812, Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society, incorporating it that same year with a group of like-minded Massachusetts residents.(5) Explaining the need for such an institution, Thomas wrote: "We cannot obtain a knowledge of those who are to come after us, nor are we certain what will be the events of future times; as it is in our power, so it should be our duty, to bestow on posterity that which they cannot give to us, but which they may enlarge and improve and transmit to those who shall succeed them."(6) Thomas was the Society's leader, serving as the first librarian, director and president. As a private collector, he purchased a large cache of Mather Family material, including portions of the famous Mather library and donated the material to the Society. Thomas eventually gave his entire private library of books, manuscripts, and newspapers to the American Antiquarian Society, along with a cash bequest and the Society's first building. He also established the custom of electing collectors of books and materials to membership in the Society, with the expectation that they would consider willing their collections to the Society.(7) His foresight set the stage for the formation of an unparalleled resource for historical research at the American Antiquarian Society's collection to become.

This portrait of Isaiah Thomas by Ethan Allen Greenwood was painted six years after the founding of the American Antiquarian Society. Greenwood probably first came to Thomas's attention after the artist produced a likeness of his son Isaiah Thomas Jr., in March of 1818. In that year, Greenwood was establishing the Gallery of Fine Arts in Boston that displayed copies of famous European paintings and portraits of well-known Americans.(8) The portrait of Isaiah Thomas painted in May 1818 was one of several prominent New Englanders. Thomas recorded in his diary, "At the request of Mr. Greenwood, Portrait Painter in Boston, sat for him to take my likeness. Mr. G. is a member of a new Society in Boston called the Fine Arts."(9) This was the first of five sittings for this portrait.(10) The finished portrait, which remained the property of Greenwood, evidently pleased Thomas and he commissioned the artist to paint his portrait again the following month. "Engaged Mr. Greenwood to take my Likeness, I sat at his request five weeks since, when he finished one for himself. I sat again today for him to take one for myself. Sat six times for this last picture. Thomas paid Greenwood $60.00 for it."(11) The portrait hung in the Thomas home in Worcester and was bequeathed to the American Antiquarian 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 Humanities.

1)   Nichols's annotated offprint version of this publication is housed at the American Antiquarian Society. In it, he records changes of ownership and provenance of various Thomas portraits that updates the Proceedings article.

2)   For more on early printing presses including the Thomas press at AAS, see Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1964), 64-66, 77.

3)   For more on Thomas, see Charles L. Nichols, Isaiah Thomas Printer, Writer, & Collector (Boston: Club of Odd Volumes, 1912).

4)   Isaiah Thomas Papers, 1748-1874, American Antiquarian Society Manuscripts Collection.

5)   There are portraits of four of the twenty-seven incorporators in the collection: Isaiah Thomas, Sr., Isaiah Thomas, Jr., Aaron Bancroft D.D. , and William Paine, D.D.The other founders were: Levi Lincoln, Sr., Levi Lincoln, Jr., Harrison Gray Otis, Timothy Bigelow, Nathaniel Paine, Edward Bangs, J.T. Kirkland, Jonathan H. Lyman, M.D., Elijah H. Mills, Elisha Hammond, Timothy Williams, William D. Peck, John Lowell (requested his name be removed), Edmund Dwight, Eleazar James, William S. Shaw, Francis Blake, Samuel Burnside Benjamin Russell, Redford Webster, Ebenezer T. Andrews, and William Wells. There is an image of Sophia Burnside, but none of her spouse.

6)   Isaiah Thomas, Sr., Account of the American Antiquarian Society (Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1813): 4.

7)   For more on the early history of the American Antiquarian Society, see Nancy Burkett and John B. Hench, eds., Under its Generous Dome, The Collections and Programs of the American Antiquarian Society (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1992).

8)   Georgia Brady Barnhill, 'Extracts from the Journals of Ethan Allen Greenwood: Portrait Painter and Museum Proprietor,' Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 103 (April 1993): 91-178.

9)   Isaiah Thomas Diary, May 20, 1818, Isaiah Thomas Papers 1748-1874.

10)   Isaiah Thomas Diary, May 21-23 and 25, 1818.

11)   Isaiah Thomas Diary, June 29, 1818; Ethan Allen Greenwood's receipt, February 27, 1819, Isaiah Thomas Papers 1748-1874. Greenwood was evidently given a five dollar deposit in June as the receipt reads, '[R]eceived of Isaiah Thomas by the hand of Isaiah Thomas, Jr., Fifty-five dollars, in full for painting a Portrait, and for frame to the same. Price of Picture and frame $60.00.'

12)   During his lifetime, Thomas had two copies of Greenwood's portrait made and three more copies were taken after his death. See Frederick Weis, 'Portraits in the American Antiquarian Society,' Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 56 (April 1946): 107-8; and Charles L. Nichols, The Portraits of Isaiah Thomas (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1921), 4-7.

Isaiah Thomas

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