The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Counting Down to the Quasquibicentennial

In eleven days, the Massachusetts Historical Society will be celebrating its quasquibicentennial, or, if you prefer, its bicenquasquigenary. In other words, on January 24, the MHS will turn 225 years old! We don’t think it looks a day over 200.

The MHS was founded on 24 January 1791, when Rev. Jeremy Belknap and a group of like-minded men met in Boston to form a society that would “collect, preserve and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country.” It was the first historical society in America, so its founders called it simply “The Historical Society.” (The New York Historical Society came along in 1804, then the American Antiquarian Society in 1812.) The MHS lived at six different locations before moving in 1899 to its current building at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston.



Staff members at the MHS have been working on a web project to commemorate our 225-year history: a gallery highlighting 225 items from our collections, including manuscripts, artwork, artifacts, and printed material representing four centuries of American history. Helping out with this project, I’ve had the chance to see a broad cross-section of material, learn the stories behind individual items, and better understand their significance.

Of course, the MHS is well-known for its iconic collection of Adams family papers, which include the letters and other papers of John, Abigail, John Quincy, and many generations of family members. We’ll be featuring some of these papers in our 225th anniversary gallery, from an early love letter by John to correspondence about Abigail’s death. John Adams’ notes on the Boston Massacre trials and his son’s reflections on the Amistad case document fascinating milestones in this illustrious family’s story.

The MHS also holds the second largest collection of Thomas Jefferson papers after the Library of Congress. Not only will our project feature Jefferson’s original manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence, but also John Adams’ manuscript copy, the first printing, and the first printing that included signers’ names.

Many of the items in our collections are, in fact, the only known surviving copies of printed works. These include Samuel Sewall’s seminal anti-slavery pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, Benjamin Franklin’s first published work, and an early engraving of Harvard discovered by accident in the MHS collections 85 years after its acquisition!

Other ground-breaking printed works you’ll find here are the first books of poetry by Anne Bradstreet (1650) and Phillis Wheatley (1773), as well as the first Bible (1663) published in North America, a translation into the Massachuset Native American language.

The MHS holdings also include some remarkable Civil War-era material, so these papers figure prominently in our gallery. Particularly heartbreaking is a letter from Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight to his mother, written as he lay dying on the battlefield of Antietam. And this broadside recruiting African American soldiers for Massachusetts’ famous 54th Regiment becomes more poignant when you learn how the U.S. government failed to make good on its promises to the men who answered its call.

As for papers related to slavery and abolition, we highlight an eight-page letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend Joshua Fry Speed detailing Lincoln’s feelings about slavery and the Union, and one Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote on the day she finished her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I also really like our 1892 photograph of the African Meeting House, the site of many anti-slavery meetings.

Speaking of striking images, here are a few more in MHS collections that you may not know about: a watercolor painting of the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp, John Noble’s illustrated letter to his children depicting scenes from the South Pacific, and the only known portrait of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone painted from life.

We hope you’ll enjoy our 225th anniversary celebration and visit us either in person or on-line. Keep an eye on our website, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter, as we count down to this momentous occasion.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 January, 2016, 4:18 PM


Commenting has closed for this post. Thank you for participating.