From the Archive: The Boston Athenæum and the London Library Business Correspondence

The Boston Athenæum and the London Library business correspondence

In 1913 the London Library was hired by the Boston Athenæum to create book lists and help select popular English novels that could not be purchased in the United States. This relationship is documented in our archive of letters (Boston Athenæum’s carbon copies and London Library originals).  This relationship lasted over three decades and through two World Wars.

In January 1913 Charles Knowles Bolton, the Boston Athenæum’s Librarian and Director, wrote to Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, the Secretary and Librarian at the London Library, inquiring about hiring them to obtain books by English authors. The following two letters describe the beginnings of this relationship. Wright suggests that his assistant Charles Purnell act as agent. Bolton describes the sort of books the Athenæum members like to read and so begins this relationship.

Wright to Bolton January 24, 1913
Bolton to Wright, page 1 of 2, February 8, 1913
Bolton to Wright, page 2 of 2, February 8, 1913

The letters describe some of the challenges faced by librarians during the World Wars. World War I was unlike anything one could have imagined.  War disrupted the normal flow of books from England and Europe to the United States.  The business correspondence between these two libraries reveal an institutional friendship whose scope extends beyond the realm of books. In the following two letters Bolton and Purnell mention censors reading correspondence, the USA entering the War, the recent advance made by the Austro-Hungarians in Italy, and, one of Purnell’s catalogers who suffered greatly but is rewarded.

Bolton to Purnell, April 12, 1917
Purnell to Bolton, page 1 of 2, October 31, 1917
Purnell to Bolton, page 2 of 2, October 31, 1917

Time passes and countries regain strength, publishing houses recover or open up, writing styles change, and books are bought and transported across the ocean again. During this time Charles Knowles Bolton retires and Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright dies. Miss Elinor Gregory (later Mrs. Metcalf) becomes the Librarian in 1937 and continues the correspondence with Charles Purnell.  WWII begins and the two librarians are steadfast about book purchases among the devastation that surrounds London.  The following three letters describe Purnell’s environment: ruin down the street from the library and damage inside the library. Miss Gregory numbers the letters she sends for fear of lost letters, business continues, and Boston prepares for war.​

Purnell to Gregory, April 19, 1941
Purnell to Gregory, May 12, 1941
Gregory to Purnell, June 10, 1941

The United States joins the war and members of the Boston Athenæum staff (men and women) sign up and head to Europe. More war preparations are made at home and abroad. Fighting continues. The two libraries carry on with corresponding and ship books across the ocean with uncertain destiny. Eventually, the war ends. Here are two letters that mark victory, hope and, of course, the continuation of book business (with a side of grape jelly).

Purnell to Metcalf, page 1 of 2, May 15, 1945
Purnell to Metcalf, page 2 of 2, May 15, 1945
Metcalf to Purnell, August 14, 1945

These surviving letters tell a remarkable story of global cooperation and resilience in the face of great challenge. The news from London was shared with all the staff at the time and with our members within the pages of Annual Reports. News of London and Boston, general library news, and personal updates (children, weddings, vacations, etc.) are shared and the bounds between both libraries grew stronger with every letter.

One can read more about the Boston Athenæum and London Library relationship in our Annual Reports online and by making a Special Collections appointment. For more information about The London Library, please visit their website

Letters are from:
B.A. 5 .10
Librarian’s records
Boston Athenæum letters received
Boston Athenæum letters out
Boston Athenæum letter files


From the Archive: The Athenæum Librarian, the Freed Slave, and “Our Friend A.L.”

The Athenæum Librarian, the Freed Slave, and “Our Friend A.L.”

The Republic, Richmond VA. 1865 September 16.
Boston Athenaeum Advertisement in The Republic, Richmond VA. 1865 September 16.

On Saturday morning September 16, 1865, The Republic, a Richmond Virginia newspaper, published this advertisement: 

“Files of ‘The Republic’ and all other Richmond papers from April 1 to August 1, 1865.  Parties having a file of any newspaper, or a collection of books or pamphlets, printed at the South during the war, may find sale for them by sending description and price to the librarian of the Boston Athenæum.”

Fourteen letters of response to Poole’s advertisement reside in the Archive. One in particular, dated September 22, stands out, that of Richard Kennard of Petersburg, VA who had bought his freedom in 1858.  Kennard did not tell Poole that he was a free slave in the letter. Poole found out, quite accidentally, when he attended a talk given by Rev. Dudley who had visited Petersburg and met Kennard when he mistook his grocery store for an eatery.

Poole wrote Kennard on October 30 and informed him that the library’s run of The Republic was complete but other papers were also sought. Poole mentioned his meeting with Dudley. Poole was an Abolitionist and his sympathetic sentiment was clear in his brief comments to Kennard that “colored men” should have the same rights as whites, should be free all over, as in Massachusetts.  “Just drop me a line if you have time…., ” Poole concluded. Poole’s consideration inspired Kennard to reply:

“PS:  …I received this morning your second kind letter and you will see by the date of the above that I had postponed the answer to your first but fearing that I might be troublesome is why I did not mail it—I know not how to express my self to you a stranger to me for such kind expressions… . To make this communication a little more interesting as you are so kind I will send you a very short history of my self & life. I was born in Petersburg augt 24th 1824 my mother a colored woman and a slave tho my father a white man and very rich whose name I take the privilege to call my own… . …hoping every day to have something good to us from President Johnson – as we have lost our friend A. L.”

With this correspondence, initiated by the newspaper advertisement, one can see the day-to-day operations of the Library acquiring a Civil War collection—but the day-to-day becomes extraordinary.  The experience of reading these letters brings one close to knowing the individuals who were essential to creating the Civil War collection that the Library houses today.  You may see the advertisement and the  Richard Kennard and William Fredrick Poole’s letters below.

If you would like to see any of these items in person, please request a research appointment.

Carolle R. Morini
Caroline D. Bain Archivist, Reference Librarian

1865 September 22, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard, in response to the advertisement above.  Boston Athenӕum Archive 

Page 1, right & Back, left: 1865 September 22 Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive
Page 2 & 3: 1865 September 22 Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive

 1865 October 30, Letter to Richard Kennard from William Fredrick Poole. Boston Athenӕum Archive 

Pge 1: Copy of, 1865 October 30, Letter to Richard Kennard from William Fredrick Poole. Boston Athenaeum Archive
Pge 2, left & page 3, right: Copy of, 1865 October 30, Letter to Richard Kennard from William Fredrick Poole. Boston Athenaeum Archive

 1865 October 3 & November 8, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard.  Boston Athenӕum Archive

Page 1: 1865 October 3 & November 8, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive
Page 2: 1865 October 3 & November 8, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive
Page 3: 1865 October 3 & November 8, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive
Page 4: 1865 October 3 & November 8, Letter to William Fredrick Poole from Richard Kennard. Boston Athenaeum Archive

Credit for images: Advertisement,The Republic, (September 16, 1865); Masthead, The Republic (September 16, 1865); Two letters by Kennard from:  Boston Athenæum Letters (1806–1887) B.A. 22, Box 12, Vols. 23-24; and Poole’s letter to Kennard from: Letters Out Volume (copies of letters he wrote).

(photographs by Carolle R. Morini, 2013).


From the Archive: Louisa May Alcott Charging Record, 1871

On November 2, 1871, Louisa May Alcott became a member with book borrowing privileges through the Share of Benjamin Willis. The Boston Athenæum began to circulate books in 1827 but only to proprietors who paid an extra five dollar fee on top of their annual assessment. The Library used large ledgers (1827-1872) to record the books members borrowed. The charging books were used before the Library adapted the two card system.

Alcott returned to Boston after traveling abroad in the spring of 1871 and took up residence at 23 Beacon (just across the street from the Athenæum). At this time, Little Men was published in London and Boston and Alcott wrote “Shawl Straps,” an account of her European tour. Come January 1872, Aunt Joe’s Scrap Bag: My Boys was published. Looking at all Alcott  accomplished by the end of 1871 and beginning of 1872, one has to wonder how she had the time to read the nineteen titles she borrowed in less than two months’ time.

Below is a transcription of the book titles that Alcott borrowed, with each individual title linked to the Athena record.

Books Borrowed, Volume 25, B.A. 17  1871, page 57.
Transcription by Alexandra Winzeler

Alcott, Louisa M.

Nov. 21871Received Subscription (Share of Benj. Willis)$1.50 
Nov. 2L. 58Why did he not die?   Nov. 6
Nov. 6.112.47Melville      Good for Nothing Nov. 14
Nov. 6112.36Trollope      Gemma Nov. 14
Nov. 6112.36“ “     Lenora Casaloni  
Nov. 14179.46A “Half” a Million of Money1, 2, 3Nov. 25
Nov. 14112.38Why Paul Ferroll Killed His Wife  Nov. 17
Nov. 17112.26The faire gospeller   Nov. 25
Nov. 25R. 76Dewey.  Life & Letters of Miss Sedgwick Dec. 4
Dec. 4112.67Sedgwick.  Married or Single1, 2Dec. 20
Dec. 4112.67New England a Tale Dec. 13
Dec. 4J. 32Forsyth.  Novels &Novelists of the 18th Century Dec. 9
Dec. 9112.211Austen  Northanger Abbey etc. Dec. 15
Dec. 15J. 53Francis of Assisi Dec. 20
Dec. 15112.24The Hotel du Petit St. Jean Dec. 20
Dec. 20112.65Bret Harte  Condensed Novels Dec. 22
Dec. 22112.12Tom Pippins’ Wedding Dec. 23
Dec. 23C. 67Forster’s Charles Dickens Dec. 28
Dec. 28V. 84The Fellah Dec. 30
Dec. 30P. 63Holinshed London in 1866 Jan. 1

From the Archive: Archibald Henry Grimké

Archibald Henry Grimké (1849-1930) listed as a reader for June 1887. Athenæum Share Holders and Ticket Holders volume (1869-1894)

One ledger, Athenæum Share Holders and Ticket Holders, lists readers for the period 1869 to 1894 and recently I came across Archibald Henry Grimké’s name listed as a reader. This was a fascinating discovery. His name may not be familiar today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was one of the most prominent people leading the struggle for African American rights.  Grimké was a lawyer, author, diplomat, and was an avid protest leader. Grimké’s passion is not surprising since his aunts were the famous “Grimké Sisters”—fervent abolitionists and advocators for women’s rights. While Grimké was a lawyer in Boston he became a reader through the use of a reader’s ticket given to him by Mrs. Margarett Stevenson Curtis (Share 19), wife of Charles Pelham Curtis, Trustee (1829-1834), in 1887. Grimké’s path to the Athenæum was not typical, and upon entering the Athenæum he would have found many sympathizers and fellow abolitionists.

Archibald Henry Grimké was born a slave to Henry Grimké and Nancy Weston in South Carolina on August 17, 1849, on “Cane Acres” plantation near Charleston. Henry Grimké was a lawyer and planter and Nancy Weston was the family’s slave nurse.  Apparently Nancy Weston did take the last name of Grimké, but Henry and Nancy probably never married.  When Grimké, was growing up he was educated at Charleston schools, even though he was technically a slave, he still received an education.  With the unexpected death of his father in 1860, Archibald and his brother Francis were returned to slavery to work as servants at his half-brother, E. Montague Grimké’s house.  Henry wanted Nancy and her children to be treated as part of the family but unfortunately that wish was not honored by E. Montague. In 1863 Archibald escaped his half-brother’s house and spent that last year of the Civil War in hiding. Francis was sold to a Confederate Officer and had to wait for the war to end before gaining his freedom.  After the war Archibald attended the Freedmen’s Bureaus’ newly created Morris Street School, then Lincoln University at Pennsylvania in 1867 where he earned a bachelor’s in 1870 and a master’s in 1872. 

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimké Weld (1805-1879) were responsible for Archibald’s move to Boston. In 1868, Angelina Grimké Weld was reading the Anti-Slavery Standard and came across an entry about a young man named Archibald Henry Grimké who delivered a “fine address” at Lincoln University. Angelina was curious about this young man, with the Grimké name, and wrote to him a letter of introduction, stating that she is the daughter of Dr. John Grimké of Charleston, and wondering if he was once a slave of one of her brother’s.  Both Sarah and Angelina had left Charleston for the north in 1829, both having strong feelings that slavery was wrong, an opinion in opposition of their family, and would not have met young Grimké beforehand. Archibald responded enthusiastically to the letter from “Miss Angelina Grimké of Anti-Slavery celebrity,” with a full description of his life.  With his aunts’ support (emotionally and financially) and their encouragement, in 1872 Archibald entered Harvard Law School graduating in 1874. 

Grimké had a truly full life in Massachusetts. When Grimké was twenty-four, after graduation from Harvard Law School, he worked at the law firm of William Bowditch and then in 1875 he gained admission to the Suffolk County bar. Three years later, in 1878, he was appointed as a justice of the peace and a year later he married Sarah E. Stanley and they had one child, Angelina Weld Grimké, born in 1880.  The first African-American newspaper the Hub, was created by Grimké in 1883.  Almost ten years later he was appointed to serve as counsel in the Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic); a position he held till 1898. Later that same year he returned to the United States to participate and influence many, if not all, the foremost African-American organizations of the times, working with Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1901 he attended the NAACP’s founding conference in 1909 and continued to foster the continuation of the organization.  Archibald Henry Grimke died in 1930 while living with his daughter and brother in Washington D.C.  Grimke’s papers are at Howard University. 

Works by Archibald Henry Grimké, with classification numbers, in the Boston Athenæum

Eulogy on Wendell Phillips / by Archibald H. Grimké, delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston, April 9, 1884; together with the proceedings incident thereto, letters, etc.18845 .9B v.38TBMR (Appointment required)Inscribed: “Mr. Fred. May Holland with compliments of A. H. Grimke.”Gift of F. M. Holland on July 29, 1896 

Life of Charles Sumner, the scholar in politics
65 .Su65 .g 
Boston Library Society, April 19, 1892
Athenæum, January 11, 1940

Colored National League. Open letter to President McKinley by colored people of Massachusetts. 

D9455 .Op2 
TBMR (Appointment required)
Anonymous gift on November 24, 1899

The American Negro Academy. Papers of The American Negro Academy, read at the nineteenth annual meeting of the American Negro academy, Washington, D.C., December 28th and 29th, 1915. 
D9455 .8Am3 .p 
TBMR (Appointment required)
Gift of Grimké on December 16, 1916, while he was the president of The American Negro Academy

Shame of America, or, The Negro’s case against the Republic
F3 no.3 
Tract (Appointment required)
Gift of Grimké on April 23, 1924.

Why disfranchisement is bad 
D9455 .G879 .w 
TBMR (Appointment required)
Gift of Grimké on January 26, 1905

William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist
65 .G195 .g 
Athenæum purchase on May 7, 1892ReferencesArchibald Grimké, portrait of a black independent, Dickson D. Bruce Jr., Louisiana State University Press, 1993.The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, pioneers for women’s rights and abolition, Gerda Lerner, University of North Carolina Press, 2004.“Rebels Against Slavery,” Laurence L/ Winship, The Boston Sunday Globe, March 10, 1968.Who’s Who in New England, edited by Albert Nelson Marquis, A. N. Marquis & Company, 1909.American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, “Grimké, Archibald Henry,” by Johnie D. Smith. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.  


From the Archive: Louisa May Alcott and others

Finding Louisa May Alcott’s name in a Ticket Holders’ volume

 The most popular question for the Archive: Was so-and-so a member? Did he or she ever visit? Read or study here? Unfortunately, the Library cannot often provide an answer because, except for a few ledgers from the 19th century, complete membership records were not retained.

One ledger, Athenaeum Share Holders and Ticket Holders, lists readers for the period 1869 to 1894. This well-worn volume lists the shareholder’s name above the names of people to whom he or she gave tickets allowing use of the Library. For the past year, I have been transcribing names and dates with the assistance of an intern who has since graduated and left for a professional job. This is a slow endeavor because some of the entries have been erased in an effort to be frugal and reuse the pages of the ledger. (Thrift is not the historian’s friend.)

Transcribing these names has taught me how varied the readers were: men, women, professionals, organizations, leaders of churches, professors, writers, doctors, etc. etc. As it turns out, women seem to be in the majority.

Among the notable ticket holders is Louisa May Alcott, listed as follows in the ledger: “Jan. 1, 1869 Alcott, Miss. L.M., one year.” Samuel May (her maternal uncle who held Share 32), arranged for Alcott to have access to the Library.

Two other women ticket holders were involved with the New England Hospital for Women and Children, located in Roxbury, MA. Dr. C. Augusta Pope (b. Boston, 1846) was given a ticket by Octavius B. Frothingham (Share 891) in 1891. Dr. Sarah Ellen Palmer (b. New Hampshire, 1856), one of the first women surgeons hired at the hospital, was given a ticket by Cyrus Woodman (Share 855) in 1892 and 1893. It is exciting to think about these two women in the Library reading medical pamphlets, relaxing with a book of verse or prose, or reading a newspaper. The Archive does not reveal what these ticket holders read or saw in the Library; however, imagining the possibilities is not only fun, but an opportunity for scholarly speculation as well.

Carolle R. MoriniCaroline D. Bain Archivist, Reference Librarian