The Massachusetts Historical Society primarily collects manuscripts—the letters, diaries, and other personal papers of individuals and families. The Society holds many famous documents such as Paul Revere's own account of his famous ride and manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence by both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. However, the true strength of the collection lies in how millions of pages of documents weave together as primary sources for the study of American history.
In addition to manuscripts, the Society holds large collections of books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, and photographs, as well as works of art and historical artifacts that support research in the library collections.
The Manuscript Collection consists of more than 14 million pages (3,700 separate collections) of personal and family papers and, to a lesser extent, institutional and early business records that date from the beginning of European settlement to the present. Highlights include manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge at the Salem Witch Trials and an early antislavery advocate; Paul Revere’s account of his famous midnight ride written at the suggestion of Jeremy Belknap in order to preserve a first-hand testimony of the event; poems and letters by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first African American poet; and documents related to the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first African American regiment raised in the North during the Civil War. The Society holds diaries, records, and letters that document the lives of those who served in the French and Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil wars.
The Photograph Collection consists of approximately 120,000 images that span the development of photographic technology, including hundreds of daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, glass-plate negatives, and carte-de-visite portraits of individuals and family groups. More than 2,000 images document the abolitionist movement and the Civil War.
Books and pamphlets printed through 1821, including a large number of 17th-century Massachusetts imprints and many early foreign publications, and broadsides and newspapers, comprise the Early Imprint Collection. The collection also includes modern reference materials, biographies, and pamphlets.
he Early Imprint Collection includes many of the first books printed in America, among them Rev. John Eliot’s “Indian Bible,” Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (Cambridge, 1663), the first Bible printed in America in any language; and Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph (Boston, 1700), the first antislavery tract printed in New England.
The Society holds more than 10,000 broadsides--single sheets of paper printed on one side that served as the primary tool for public announcements. This is a large and important compilation given the ephemeral nature of their time-specific use. Generally posted or read aloud, broadsides constituted official notices of laws and regulations and provided news of battles, deaths, executions, and other current events. Highlights include a notice of Harvard’s commencement exercises in 1643, announcements of antislavery rallies, and the most important single printed document in American history—one of the few copies of the original printing of the Declaration of Independence.
The Map Collection consists of approximately 2,500 maps and charts that illustrate the history and development of the United States. The collection is particularly strong in maps of Boston, Massachusetts, and New England and includes the first map printed in Massachusetts. The Samuel C. Clough Collection features manuscript maps and atlas plates prepared by Clough in the early 20th century for a massive, but unfinished, topographical history of Boston. Other highlights include the Francis Russell Hart collection of maps of the West Indies and Central America, and the charts and 16 engraved printing plates for Joseph F. W. Des Barres's Atlantic Neptune (1776-1781.)
The Society's collection of graphics consists of approximately 4,000 portrait prints and drawings, 230 silhouettes, and 2,000 images of historical events. Notable pieces include Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre; the earliest known American woodcut, a 1670 portrait of Richard Mather; and mezzotints of Native American leaders. The collection also includes World War I recruiting and war loan posters.
The Newspaper Collection contains 300 titles, ranging from single issues of American and foreign newspapers to extensive runs of early Boston papers. The Society holds the only extant copies of many 18th-century newspapers, such as the Boston News-Letter, which began production in 1704 and was the first newspaper in the colonies published on a weekly basis. The collection also contains James Franklin’s New-England Courant, published from 1721 to 1727, which includes Benjamin Franklin’s first appearance in print, as well as a complete run of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper.
The Historical Artifact Collection, holds more than 3,000 objects and more than 7,000 numismatics (coins, medals, and paper currency) that represent several centuries of American history. A pocket watch that belonged to the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather, according to family tradition, was “carried by him among the Indians, who, hearing the ticking were frightened and thought he carried the Devil in his pocket.” A late-17th-century chest of drawers later became known as the “the Witch Bureau” when an 1861 description recorded that “from the middle drawer…one of the Witches jumped out who was hung on Gallows Hill, in Salem.” Other highlights include the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation; a windowsill from a Harvard detention house, signed by students confined for bad behavior in the early 19th century; the swords of William Prescott and John Linzee who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill; George Washington’s epaulettes; and a silver urn made by Paul Revere in the neoclassical style he adopted toward the end of the American Revolution.
The MHS Art Collection includes 380 portrait paintings, 67 city- and landscapes, 165 miniature portraits, and 52 sculptures. Since 1796—when the MHS acquired its first painting, a portrait of colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson—the Society's Art Collection has served as a vital complement to its exceptional archive of American history. With paintings, sculpture, prints, and drawings by artists both famous and obscure, the works of art at the Society reveal striking observations about life in another period, capture the figures who shaped American history, and depict monuments and natural features of the continent, including many that disappeared centuries ago. We hold art by some of early America’s most noted painters, among them John Singleton Copley, Edward Savage, John Smibert, Gilbert Stuart, Eliza Goodridge, and John Trumbull. Cityscapes and landscapes form a small but important subset of the collection and include two original views of Brook Farm by Josiah Wolcott, dated 1845 and c. 1846.