The stately Boston Athenaeum at 10-1/2 Beacon St. owes its storied existence to William Smith Shaw, the obsessive, sickly, curmudgeonly, hard-drinking nephew of John Adams.
Today the Boston Athenaeum oozes elegance with its scarlet leather-bound doors, gilt-edged books and marble busts. But in 1807, it was little more than the obsession of the odd bibliomaniac who served as its first librarian.
William Smith Shaw, wrote a contemporary, ‘fastens on everything new, rare, and antique, with an earnestness which baffles all denial.’
Some called Shaw’s compulsive hoarding of books a ‘symptomatic disease of the upper class’ during the early, anxious years of the new American republic.
William Smith Shaw
William Smith Shaw was born in the chaos of the American Revolution on Aug. 12, 1778, in Haverhill, Mass. His father was village minister John Shaw; his mother, Elizabeth Smith, was Abigail Adams’ sister. He was sickly as a child, and at the age of eight he ran into a low-hanging clothesline, which injured his windpipe and wrenched his spine. At 12 he caught his ankle in a fencepost hole, which left him with a limp throughout his life.
His portrait by Gilbert Stuart shows a hunched, pasty-faced gentleman with a book in front of him.
While Shaw studied at Harvard, his father died, leaving his family impoverished and forcing him to work for his tuition.
After he graduated in 1798, he worked as personal secretary for his uncle, President John Adams. When George Washington died, William Smith Shaw traveled to Mount Vernon to give Congress’s condolences to Martha Washington.
He keenly felt the political uncertainty of the age. After his uncle lost a brutal campaign for re-election, Shaw castigated President-elect Thomas Jefferson as ‘a man eternally wavering from one extreme to the other’ who headed an ‘unprincipled jacobinic faction.’
Shaw felt lonely and anxious in the raw, wet town of Washington. He wrote that he found friends in the society of books.
“[They] come at my call and return when I desire them–they are never out of humor and they answer all my questions with readiness.”
William Smith Shaw moved to Boston and set up a law practice. He never married, despite his mother’s pleas, but formed intense friendships with several young gentlemen his age. They were all anglophiles, and they all yearned to be men of letters. They included Arthur Maynard Walter, Joseph Stevens Buckminster and Robert Hallowell Gardiner
In 1804, William Smith Shaw and his friends took over a floundering magazine and called it the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. They used it as an excuse for a club they called the Anthology Society. The young men met to smoke cigars, drink and laugh, and meetings sometimes lasted into a ‘vulgar hour.’
The notes to one meeting read, “No other business was transacted, the members feeling rather wild in a strange room. The beef was good and the wine bad.”
Soon the Anthology Society received too many books to review, too many periodicals in exchange for subscriptions. The young men needed a place to put it all, so they rented a room on Congress Street. Shaw, Walter and Gardiner brought their books to put on a shelf.
In 1806, Shaw was appointed clerk of the federal court, which freed him up to act as the reading room’s librarian. A $10 membership fee allowed subscribers to visit the reading room from 9 am to 9 pm.
The next year they formally established the Boston Athenaeum, with trustees, subscribers and William Smith Shaw as librarian. Sometimes he was the only trustee who came to the bimonthly meetings, and one year the trustees managed a quorum only once.
The deaths of two close friends may have exacerbated his OCD tendencies. He was devastated when Arthur Maynard Walter and Joseph Stevens Buckminster died before they turned 30.
Shaw became so obsessed with his collecting that he designed his clothing with large pockets in which to hold pamphlets and periodicals during the day. People nicknamed him Athenaeum Smith.
His letters reveal a growing desperation to acquire books: “I cannot urge upon you too strongly to spare no pains to send me the interesting books published in NYork as soon as possible,” he wrote.
Perhaps he was beginning to invest in books and pamphlets what he could no longer invest in human relationships.
Judge William Tudor observed of him:
…that dog Shaw goes everywhere. He knows everybody. Everybody knows him. If he sees a book, pamphlet, or manuscript –– Oh! Sir! the Athenæum must have this. Well, have it he will and have it he must, and have it he does, for he seldom goes out of a house without having something under his arm; and his large pockets, made on purpose, are crammed. Now, he never refuses anything whatever.
Eccentric and Gauche
William Smith Shaw’s obsession with the Boston Athenaeum bordered on lunacy.
He made a list of his responsibilities as librarian: “Every morning, Sweep News-rooms/dust the tables, chairs &c and the Library-room–After breakfast, clean the Lamps & Lamp-room, see that the books are in their places ad even with the shelves.”
He gloried in the institution. It was ‘one of the greatest strides toward intellectual advancement this country has ever witnessed,” wrote Smith.
The trustees grew frustrated by his possessiveness. Though they asked him to do it repeatedly, he refused to separate his own books and periodicals from the Athenaeum’s.
It didn’t help that he was eccentric and gauche. He was uncouth in mind and body, wrote his friend Robert Hallowell Gardiner, but indefatigable in his labours for promoting the success of the work in which we were engaged.
In the end, booze got the better of him. In 1823, the Boston Athenaeum fired William Smith Shaw from his job as librarian. Gardiner explained why: ”…Intemperance made him incapable of attending to the decencies of life.”
He only lived a few more years, dying at 48 in 1826.
10-1/2 Beacon St.
After Shaw’s departure, the Boston Athenaeum began thriving. In 1847, the cornerstone was laid for the current Neoclassical building at 10-1/2 Beacon Street, next to the Old Granary Burying Ground.
Its illustrious members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, both Oliver Wendell Holmeses, John Quincy Adams, Amy Lowell and John F. Kennedy. It also held an art collection that became the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Today the Boston Athenaeum is open all day Monday through Friday and part of the day over the weekend.
Images: Boston Athenaeum exterior by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=722802.
With thanks to Culture Club: The Curious History of the Boston Athenaeum By Katherine Wolff. This story about the Boston Athenaeum was updated in 20212