Object of the Month

The "literary leather dresser": Thomas Dowse and his Library

The Dowse Library Engraving

The Dowse Library

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This view of the Dowse Library was engraved by H. Wright Smith and shows the library when it opened on 9 April 1857, at the Massachusetts Historical Society's headquarters at 30 Tremont Street in Boston. Although dismantled in 1899 for the move to our current 1154 Boylston Street building, the library looks much the same now as it did then.

Who was Thomas Dowse?

Thomas Dowse, who would become one of the greatest benefactors of the Historical Society, was born in Charlestown on 28 December 1772, the son of Eleazer Dowse, a tanner and leather dresser. Injured in a fall from an apple tree at age six, and later afflicted by rheumatic fever, Dowse was a sickly and lame child who turned to books for "occupation and amusement," reading voraciously and beginning what would become a lifelong collecting habit. Largely self-taught, Dowse followed in his father's footsteps and became a tanner and leather dresser, establishing his own business in Cambridgeport. By 1814, he had built a three story wooden house near Central Square that still stands today, the centerpiece of which was his second-floor library. Dowse never married and worked at his trade daily until 1846, spending every cent and spare moment on his ever-growing library.

Thomas Dowse actually read the volumes he acquired and focused his collecting on English literature and foreign literature in translation, amassing a library valued at more than $40,000, well over a million dollars in today's currency. Luther Farnham, who surveyed American private libraries in 1855, said of Dowse's collection: "The writer ... has glanced at the library that seems to be the richest and fullest in English literature of any owned by a private individual in New England." Edward Everett, who visited Dowse and his library while serving as president of Harvard University, described it as "the most excellent library of English books, for its size, with which I am acquainted."

Strawberries Lead to an Unexpected Gift

Despite the fact that Dowse and his library were well known among Boston's intellectual elite (many of whom were members of the MHS), Dowse was never considered for membership--his humble roots and lack of formal education, and the fact that membership in the Society was limited to 60 resident members, virtually assured it. In the 1850s, however, Dowse began to search for a home for the books that were "the dearest earthly objects of his affections ... his guides in youth, his support in manhood, his solace in old age." Although courted by Harvard, Dowse was ultimately unable to reach an agreement with them. George Livermore-Dowse's confidant, fellow bibliophile, and MHS member-served as an intermediary between Dowse and the Society, tendering Dowse's offer of his library on two conditions: that the books remain together in one room "for ever" and that they be used only in that room. Without consulting other members of the Society, President Robert C. Winthrop eagerly accepted Dowse's gift in July of 1856.

It may seem mysterious that a man who had never visited the hallowed halls of the Society or been invited to join would make such a valuable gift to the MHS. In Dowse's own words, "he had long been familiar with the character of the Society, and was personally acquainted with many of the members, he felt sure, that, in their keeping, his books which had been for many years his choice and cherished friends, would be carefully preserved and properly used..."

President Winthrop, however, was convinced that strawberries played the key role in Dowse's decision. A few times each year, the Society held meetings in the homes of its members. George Livermore hosted the spring meeting, known as the "Strawberry Festival," in 1856 and invited Dowse to rub elbows with such illustrious MHS members as Josiah Quincy, George Ticknor, Francis Parkman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edward Everett. Although Dowse declined the invitation due to his failing health, Winthrop was convinced that Livermore's invitation to partake in strawberries with the members of the Society was the deciding factor for Dowse.

Although Dowse did not live to see his library installed at the Society (he died on 4 November 1856), he did personally present President Winthrop with one of the treasures of the collection, the 1625 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimes, in Five Bookes, as "an earnest and evidence of my having given the whole of my library to said Massachusetts Historical Society."

In accordance with Dowse's wishes, at the December meeting of the Society, members voted to remodel a second story room of the Society's building at 30 Tremont Street in Boston for his books. The Dowse Library was formally dedicated at the MHS annual meeting on 9 April 1857 and it became the central gathering place for the members of the Society, the richly appointed room a stark contrast, in the words of Charles Francis Adams (1835-1915), to "the dirty, ordinary, ill-kept and poor provisioned room in which it used to hold very small and very dull monthly meetings." In 1899, the Dowse Library was dismantled and moved to the Society's current headquarters at 1154 Boylston Street, where it continues to serve as a meeting room-although it now is far too small to hold the entire membership of the Society.

Highlights of the Collection: A Special Exhibition

Beginning on 9 April 2007 and continuing through the summer, the MHS will mark the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Dowse Library with an exhibition of books drawn from Thomas Dowse's Library in the room named for him. Among the 4,665 volumes are first editions of The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia (1632), William Wood's New England's Prospect (1639) and a 1787 London edition of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. In addition to bibliographical rarities, the library contains English literature, foreign literature in translation, travel accounts, history, and biography. As befits Dowse's occupation as a leather dresser, many of the volumes are cased in fine bindings, often the work of early 19th-century Boston bookbinders. In addition to the catalog of the Dowse Library published at the time of the gift, all of the volumes now are accessible through ABIGAIL, the MHS online catalog.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Catalogue of the Private Library of Thomas Dowse, of Cambridge, Mass., Presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society, July 30, 1856. Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1856.

Everett, Edward. "Eulogy on Thomas Dowse," in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1855-1858, p. 361-398.

Farnham, Luther. A Glance at Private Libraries. Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1855.

Tucker, Louis Leonard. The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: Mass. Historical Society, 1995.

Whitehill, Walter Muir. "The Centenary of the Dowse Library," in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 71 (October, 1953-May, 1957), p. 167-178.


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