J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Early American Science in Kansas City

The Linda Hall Library in Kansas City is featuring a small but mighty display of publications titled “Promoting Useful Knowledge: The American Philosophical Society and Science in Early America.”

The items include:
The label on the Thomas almanac says, “after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Thomas had to move his press from Boston to Worcester to prevent his own arrest and that of his printers, and to prevent the presses from being seized and destroyed by the British.”

Thomas left Boston just before the war began to feel safe from the British army. Timothy Bigelow and other Worcester Patriots assured him he could sell newspapers in their town.

Thomas hoped to gain the printing business of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, but then Benjamin Edes set up in Watertown and Samuel and Ebenezer Hall moved their press from Salem to Cambridge. Thomas got the contract to print the congress’s report on the opening battle and nothing else, but he did become Worcester’s postmaster.

Back to the Linda Hall Library exhibit. Its anchor is a copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack for 1753, describing Benjamin Franklin’s first electrical experiments and showing a transit of the planet Mercury.

That almanac was loaned to the library by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia after a bet on the outcome of last winter’s Super Bowl. (The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 38–35.) The story behind the exhibit is thus itself notable.

I was also intrigued by the story behind the Linda Hall Library. Herbert and Linda Hall left a multimillion-dollar bequest to establish “a free public library for the use of the people of Kansas City.” In post–World War Two America, the trustees decided that institution should be dedicated to scientific and technical information.

The Linda Hall Library started by purchasing the collection of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1780 by James Bowdoin and other Enlightened gentlemen from newly independent Massachusetts. Which probably explains why it holds so many almanacs from New England.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

In guessing at a connection between the A.A.S.P. library and the almanacs in this online exhibit, I’d pictured the New England Enlightenment thinkers saving those publications. But something about that seemed odd: almanacs were mass-market, practical products, not real scientific publications or genteel objects.

Ben Gross of the Linda Hall Library told me on Twitter that those almanacs were a far more recent donation. Which shows how a work-a-day, maybe even throwaway, object becomes a valuable historical document and collectible centuries later.