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Boston Athenæum

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10 ½ Beacon Street
Boston, MA United States

The word “athenaeum” is borrowed from the Greek, originally a designation for temples of Athena, goddess of wisdom, justice, and craft. The Boston Athenæum was founded on these principles, as an attempt by the Boston elite—or “Brahmin,” from the Hindu class of intellectuals and teachers of sacred wisdom—to bring culture to the city. This began with The Monthly Anthology, a magazine of “polite literature,” which became The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review in 1804. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose father was a founding member—described the journal as “mingled extracts and original contributions, theology and medicine, with all manner of literary chips and shavings.” The following year, the Anthology Society was formed; in 1807, with a desire for a society reading room, the group began to build what became the collection of the Athenæum.

In its early years, the Boston Athenæum moved from rented rooms on Congress Street to Tremont Street near the present Government Center, to a site purchased beside the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, to a donated mansion on Pearl Street. In 1849, architect Edward Clarke Cabot completed the first three floors of the present neo-Palladian structure at 10½ Beacon Street, overlooking the Granary Burying Ground. The ground floor was a sculpture gallery, the middle floor held the library, and what was then the top floor contained second gallery exclusively for paintings. Many of the works in the original art collection were used to help establish the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The fourth and fifth floors, including a reading room, were added in the early 1900s.

The library, which is available only to members, was once patronized by figures such as John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John F. Kennedy, and George Ticknor. Today, the Athenæum contains over half a million books—many of which are rare—the majority of George Washington’s personal library, early American newspapers and broadsides, 17th century theological texts, the papers and some works of John Singer Sargent, a first edition of The Birds of America by Audubon, 19th century political ballots from early American elections, late-1920s drawings from the design studio of Cartier, and Confederate stamps and currency.

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Did You Know?

Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.