Walk by 10 ½ Beacon Street in Boston and you’ll notice a distinctive sandstone façade and attention-getting red doors. Those two features are the exterior hallmarks of the Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest and most esteemed private membership libraries in the United States.
The Athenaeum is designated a National Historic Landmark for good reason. Past members include John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amy Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Daniel Webster and Lydia Maria Child. Today, its collection numbers over a half million volumes, with particular emphasis on Boston history, New England history, biography, English and American literature, fine and decorative arts, and an exceptional collection of Confederate States imprints.
The first floor and exhibition galleries are open to the public. All other floors are accessible only to members. However, curious sightseers like me can time their visit to coincide with the Athenaeum’s weekly art and architecture tour. The tour not only focuses on the history of the Athenaeum’s building and its fine arts collection, but also allows the public to take a behind-the-scenes look at the building. Photography is not permitted inside.
As we waited near the circulation desk for the tour to begin, I admired a charming sculpture that I had come to the Athenaeum to see. Before my visit, I had read that it was Will-o’-the-Wisp, which Harriet Hosmer created circa 1856. A native of Massachusetts, Harriet was a well-known sculptor in her day. While working in Rome, she met Nathaniel Hawthorne and is said to have been the model for Hilda in his novel, The Marble Faun.
Joyce, a Boston Athenaeum member and docent, began our tour in an elegant room overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, named after the grain storage facility that stood on the site in the 17th century. Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin’s parents are buried here.
The Athenaeum traces its history to 1807, when 14 members of Boston’s Anthology Society decided that they needed a collection of newspapers, journals and books to help them edit their journal, the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. They also thought it would be nice to have a reading room where they could keep up with current news, as well as a non-circulating library where they could expand the society’s collection to include rare books and artwork. After calling a couple of other locations home, the Boston Athenaeum moved into its present Beacon Street building, which was built in 1847 and opened in 1849. According to my DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Boston, a sheep farmer named Edward Clarke Cabot won the competition to design the building. He based his work on a Vicenzan palazzo that was designed by Andrea Palladio. Cabot saw an illustration of the palazzo in a book in the Athenaeum’s collection.
Describing the Athenaeum’s early art collecting endeavors, Joyce showed us the portrait that Abigail Adams had commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint of her husband, John. Abigail’s nephew, William Smith Shaw, was a founder of the Anthology Society and its first librarian; the Boston Athenaeum purchased the portrait from his estate in the 1820s.
Next, we went upstairs to the fifth floor, a quiet place for reading and research. After looking inside the reading room, we stepped outside on a small terrace and took in the view, which included the landmark steeple of Park Street Church, the historic site where the hymn “America” (also known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”), was sung for the first time on July 4, 1831.
On the fourth floor, home to library administration and the World History collection, Joyce showed us the oval room in which the Athenaeum’s trustees meet. In this pleasant room with peach walls and a light green ceiling, Joyce pointed out a bookcase that holds George Washington’s personal library. These thousand volumes cover a variety of topics, from practical how-to books to an autographed copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Congressional Register containing the first proceedings of the U.S. Congress.
Outside the trustees’ room, Joyce pointed out two red armchairs flanking a floor lamp. Inviting nests like this can be found throughout the Boston Athenaeum, providing a comfortable reading area for members.
The third floor contains biographies, autobiographies, and the cataloging and acquisitions functions of the library, but a unique treasure lies within a distinctive dark blue wooden case with glass sides. This contains the King’s Chapel Collection. Consisting of mostly 17th-century theological works, including John Calvin’s complete works in Latin, these books were given to the chapel by William III when it was a parish of the Church of England.
Our next stop was the “Drum,” the nine floors of glass-floored stacks at the curved end of the building that were constructed to create more space for books. Here, Joyce told us about the Athenaeum’s early cataloging system, which was devised by Charles Ammi Cutter, who became the Athenaeum’s librarian in 1869. Cutter created his own classification system, known as Expansive Classification, during his work revising the Athenaeum’s catalog. The Cutter system became the basis of the Library of Congress classification system; the sections of the call number used to alphabetically designate authors’ names are still known as “Cutter numbers.” To show us examples of Expansive Classification, Joyce asked us to look at the books on the shelves and notice their call numbers. I picked Our Standard Bearer, or the Life of General Grant: His Youth, His Manhood, His Campaigns, and His Eminent Services in the Reconstruction of the Nation His Sword Has Redeemed, written by Oliver Optic and illustrated by Thomas Nast in 1868, with “65 .G767 .ad” precisely written in Library Hand.
Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system of library classification, developed Library Hand in 1887 as a uniform, legible style of handwriting that librarians could use when entering information about books in acquisition ledgers, completing catalog cards and writing call numbers on the spines of books. The two styles of Library Hand that he developed — joined (cursive) and disjoined (print) — were taught in library schools and used in libraries during its heyday, from 1887 to 1910. I love Library Hand. To see examples of it, click here. Card catalog fans will be gratified to know that the Athenaeum maintains its card catalog, filled with Library Hand-written cards sporting interesting marginalia.
On the second floor, we stopped by a spiral iron staircase painted in light green and salmon to hear about the Boston Athenaeum’s fiction collection. In this reading room, busts of Roman citizens flank a long table filled with periodicals and journals focusing on history and literature, such as Newport History, Past & Present, Yankee, and Victorian Literature & Culture.
Joyce described how in the 19th century, art was seen as a way to learn, to tell stories, and to convey information about important historical events and people, so the Athenaeum added an art gallery in 1827 and began yearly exhibitions of American and European art. Walking over to see the portion of 14 Beacon Street that offers extra space for the Athenaeum, Joyce told us that during the 19th century, it was common for artists to rent a room and charge a couple of pennies for people to see their work. During this time, the Athenaeum started commissioning art, then received art from artists, and finally began collecting art. Some of the sculptures in the Athenaeum’s collection include Jean-Antoine Houdon’s busts of Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington, all of which originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson and were part of his furnishings at Monticello.
When the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was established in the early 1870s, the Athenaeum helped to establish the museum’s collection by sending it some of its paintings and statues. Many of these works remained at the museum. To celebrate this partnership, the Boston Athenaeum is planning an exhibition called Brilliant Beginnings: The Athenaeum and the Museum in Boston that will run from February 13 through August 3, 2013.
If you visit the Athenaeum before January 12, 2013, see Chromo-Mania!: The Art of Chromolithography in Boston, 1840-1910. This exhibition explores chromolithography, a printmaking process that dominated color printing in the 19th century, and how Boston lithographers, artists, and publishers helped to develop it.
Outside the gallery, a display of lithographic tools and stones, progressive color proofs for a color lithograph, and images of a Victorian lithographic studio explain how the process works. To create a lithograph, an artist drew on limestone and used oil and water to create a black-and-white image that closely resembles the original drawing. Sometimes, color was added by hand. In chromolithography, lithographs are created using separately colored, inked and printed stones.
Over 60 works from the Boston Athenaeum’s collection provide brilliant illustrations of the technique. These include views of Boston; illustrations from books like Grandmother’s Story of Bunker Hill Battle, Little Red Riding Hood and Robinson Crusoe; covers of sheet music like The Death of Minnehaha; portraits of “prize piggies” and poultry breeds; and trade cards and advertisements for products like cocoa, bicycles, weaving looms, banjos, soda water knitting silk and Christmas cards. Reproductions of artwork by Asher B. Durand and Winslow Homer, including items from Louis Prang’s “Yellowstone National Park” portfolio, demonstrate how Prang, a German emigrant, used chromolithography to make art accessible to the average American.
To read more about this special library, check out Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum, by Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger; Culture Club: The Curious History of the Boston Athenaeum, by Katherine Wolff; The Boston Athenaeum: Bicentennial Essays, edited by Richard Wendorf; and “With Éclat”: The Boston Athenaeum and the Origin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, by Hina Hirayama.