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History of the Arts in Fitchburg
Item 4 of 6

The Fitchburg Athenaeum was organized in 1852 and was originally a private library that occupied a room in the town hall. The Athenaeum became a place that held gatherings of people wanting to hear others' ideas and beliefs. The book collection grew from an initial size of 500 books to 1,400 over time, before the Athenaeum was closed and its collection was taken over by the new Fitchburg Public Library. Back in the day, the Athenaeum was a place where influential people came to speak and be heard by the locals in Fitchburg. Individuals would buy tickets to attend these public gatherings. The price was relatively cheap, 10-15 cents depending on if you were a male or female. When Henry David Thoreau spoke at the Athenaeum, they charged $1.50, which was a little more than the other speakers. As mentioned before, the Athenaeum was known for having lectures given by popular speakers over the course of six years.

Atheneum Ticket

This was the ticket people would receive when they wanted to go to the Fitchburg Athenaeum.  The price was relatively cheap, 10- 15 cents depending on Male or Female.  When Thoreau spoke at the Athenaeum they charged $1.50.

Lecture flyer for REV. G. B. WILLCOX. See links below for full collection of flyers.

Tickets were 10 cents for this lecture that was held on March 4th, 1854

REV. T Starr King lecture flyer

Lectured on Tuesday evening January 10th , 1853

Henry Ward Beecher Lecture flyer

Font, Material property, Paper, Paper product

Lectures for the 1956-1857 season. See links below for full listings.

Font, Suit, History, Brand

Henry David Thoreau

Forehead, Hair, Chin, Eyebrow

Henry Ward Beecher

Dress shirt, Sleeve, Gesture, Collar

Mark Hopkins

Forehead, Face, Chin, Hairstyle

Josiah Quincy Jr

Sleeve, Art, Painting, Tints and shades

Wendell Phillips

Bow tie, Dress shirt, Collar, Blazer

Atheneum Newspaper Article

This newspaper article highlights the speakers at the Fitchburg Athenaeum and the impact they had on the community.

Atheneum Regulations

The Atheneum had rules and regulations visitors were required to follow upon their visit. This image lists the regulations implemented at the Atheneum.

Modern Henry Ward Flyer

This flyer was made as a representation of a lecture flyer,  that was used to attract audience to the Atheneum.

Modern Fitchburg Atheneum Flyer

Font, Tie, Collar, Blazer

Modern Wendell Phillips Flyer

Coat, Font, Poster, Blazer

Modern Henry Thoreau Flyer

Font, Poster, Suit, Photo caption

Before the Fitchburg Public Library was founded, the Fitchburg Athenaeum was the last of a list of other private organizations that had been formed as a way of providing information and discussion of the important issues of the day to the citizens of Fitchburg. Previous organizations included the Fitchburg Philosophical Association and the Fitchburg Library Association. The Athenaeum grew directly out of the dissolution of the Library Association, its mission to "furnish facilities for intellectual, moral, and social improvement, by the establishment and maintenance of a library, reading room, and lectures."

The Athenaeum officially began on October 19th, 1852 with 100 members, taking over the collection of approximately 500 books that was previously owned by the Library Association. That organization voted to dissolve, but its current members were granted membership and one share of stock in the Athenaeum. Any citizen could join the association and also be granted one share of stock by paying a $5 membership fee. The Athenaeum was granted space in the newly created Town Hall, which had not yet been fully completed. The location of the Athenaeum would later become the officers of the mayor and city auditor by the end of the 19th century. Their first shipment of new books arrived in the early summer of 1853.

Initial interest in the Athenaeum centered around its organization of lecture series that would begin in the winter of 1852. The initial committee responsible for organizing these lectures consisted of Charles Mason, Rev. Horation Stebbins, and Rev. John Jennings. This lecture series continued for six years, and the full list of speakers can be found in the link section below.

Although the lecture series was quite popular, the crash of 1857 greatly impacted the organization. Attendance at the lectures dwindled as it became difficult for people to afford them. The Athenaeum tried offering some lectures for free, but it became clear that this would not be financially feasible. By 1859, the Athenaeum had dissolved and agreed to sell its collection of books to the newly forming public Free Town Library, which also took over its space in the Town Hall, with service beginning on December 1st of that year.

Some of the speakers who lectured at the Fitchburg Athenaeum included Henry Ward Beecher, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Hopkins, Josiah Quincy, Horace Greeley, and Wendell Phillips. Henry Ward Beecher spoke on Thursday evening November 16th, 1854. Beecher was an American Congregationalist clergyman and an anti-slavery activist. Henry was known for being a minister and sharing God's love. He believed we shouldn't judge others and also believed books are the passageway to knowledge and they inform much more than personal experiences.

Henry David Thoreau spoke on Tuesday, February 3rd, 1857 at 7:30 pm. Thoreau spoke about his views on society and the views of nature. He knew many people couldn't accept the natural calmness of being outside. He also recognizes “nature against civilization” which also speaks of societal norms and the counteractions of that. His lecture was the last in a seasons course of ten, sponsored by the Fitchburg Athenaeum. His lecture was about “The Wild” and his aim was to set forth the claims of nature against civilization.

Another speaker at the Athenaeum was Mark Hopkins. He spoke on Tuesday, December 21st, 1852. Hopkins was an American railroad executive. He was one of the big four who helped build the central pacific railroad, Hopkins also studied law and moved through business ventures. He accomplished a lot like, becoming president of his own college. When Hopkins lectured, he most likely spoke on his favorite topic, moral philosophy. This topic was not recorded just like the topics of many other speakers.

Continuing the list of influential speakers is Josiah Quincy Jr. He spoke on January 4th, 1853. Quincy graduated from Harvard and become a Boston lawyer, as well as a Patriot penman. When Josiah started his career he was known for his oratory skills. When he spoke at the Fitchburg Athenaeum, he lectured about the American ideals.

Next, we have Horace Greeley who was an American newspaper editor. He was also the founder of the New York Tribune. Horace was very invested in the Northern’s antislavery sentiments and often spoke of that. Horace used his newspaper to help form public opinion before the war. His paper became so popular he had the ability to influence opinion against Abraham Lincoln, but then supported him during his Presidency. 

Lastly, we have Wendell Phillips who was an American abolitionist and an advocate for Native Americans. Wendell studied at Harvard and then continued on to law school. After going to school, Wendell was able to open his own law firm in Boston, MA. This led Wendell to become interested in abolitionists and after becoming converted, he joined the Anti-Slavery Society. At a gathering, Wendell was protesting the death of Elijah Lovejoy an abolitionist who died because of his beliefs. This caused many people to believe Wendell should be the head of the Society. He also wrote a book that was accused of being morally corrupt because of the two topics. 

O'Connor, Anne. Fitchburg - the old hometown. Fitchburg, MA. 2013.

Kirkpatrick, Doris. The City and the River. Volume 1. Fitchburg, MA. 1971.

Perkins, Melanie. Canva. January 1st, 2013. Accessed December 9th, 2022.

History Of Fitchburg City Hall, City of Fitchburg. Accessed December 12th, 2022.

Horace Greeley, EHistory. Accessed December 12th, 2022.

Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr, Celebrate Boston. Accessed December 12th, 2022.

American Antiquarian Society. Atheneum-Lectures-207204

American Antiquarian Society. Atheneum-Lectures-207203

American Antiquarian Society. Atheneum-Lectures-207212

Fitchburg Historical society- Images

Emerson, William Andrew. Fitchburg, Massachusetts: Past and Present (1887). Fitchburg, MA. Press of Blanchard & Brown, 1887.

Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Read by Some of the Members. Volume 1. Fitchburg, MA. The Historical Society, 1895.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Fitchburg Historical Society

American Antiquarian Society

American Antiquarian Society

American Antiquarian Society

Created by J.J. Sylvia IV using information from Atherton P. Mason's "The Fitchburg Athenaeum" in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society Volume 1, 1895

Fitchburg Historical Society

Fitchburg Historical Society