Notes on collections and events at the RIHS
For this holiday week celebrating the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776, I delved into the R.I.H.S. collections to find some patriotic treasure. In 1796 this broadside was printed without a named printer and reportedly in Providence, R.I. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds the only known copy.
In that year, there were four known printers working in Providence: John Carter (1745-1814), Bennett Wheeler (1756-1806), William Wilkinson (1760-1852), and Joseph Fry (1774-1856). The mysterious Mr. Fry is only known to have printed A Funeral Oration by Nathan Holmes in 1796 specifically, and a newspaper called the State Gazette. Any one of these men could have printed this. Was their name trimmed off an originally larger piece of paper? Was it intentionally left off for some unknown reason? We may never know. We know the date of the imprint because it is in the title.
The printer’s ornaments are basic, but the larger square flower can be identified as number 499 in Elizabeth Reilly’s epic reference book, A Dictionary of Colonial American Printers’ Ornaments and Illustrations (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1975). While the ornament is not attributed to any colonial Rhode Island printers before 1776, by 1796 all four of the aforementioned printers may have acquired it from other states.
So why do we accept this as a Providence imprint? There are some curatorial clues. On the front of the item “Providence, R.I.” is written in pencil under the title. On the verso (back) of the broadside, in the same hand, is written one telling word: “Shepley”.George Leander Shepley (1854-1924) made his fortune as an insurance agent and broker. One of the most successful businessmen of his day, he co-founded the Providence firm Starkweather & Shepley in 1879 when he was but 26 years old. He served as aide-de-camp for Governor Elisha Dyer in 1897, for which he earned the title of Colonel. He became Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island in 1902 for the Republican Party. “Socially he is of a genial nature and of an even temper, accessible and polite to all, without regard for any outward conditions of circumstances.” So noted William Cutter in his profile of Shepley in New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial…, (Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1914). He was an active club man and a 33rd degree Mason.
With his amassed wealth he became a renowned collector of historical books and manuscripts focused on Americana and particularly Rhode Island. To house his collection of over 80,000 items he personally designed the state-of-the-art Shepley Library at 296 Benefit St. in Providence on the north side of his dwelling. It was completed in August 1921 and included a high-tech, electric burglar alarm.
When Shepley was awarded an honorary degree at Brown University in June 1921 University President William H.P. Faunce said if him: “a faithful citizen who has learned to face both triumph and disaster unafraid; who, amid the engrossing tasks of business, has found abundant time for literature and history and gathered a library which will enrich Providence for centuries to come.”
Alas, Col. Shepley’s dream of a permanent library was not realized. His daughter Mrs. Hope Hollister of New York City died before him in 1920. His only other child was Mrs. Virginia Metcalf of Providence who was listed as the other “incorporator” of the library when it was completed in 1921. For unknown reasons she did not secure his legacy and the Rhode Island books, manuscripts, broadsides and prints were sold to the Rhode Island Historical Society in June 1938. The purchase was made possible by 20 generous donors who united for the cause. “The Shepley Library is the largest and most important collection of books ever obtained by the Society at one time” read an article in Rhode Island Historical Society Collections of October 1938 (vol. XXXI, No. 4, p.97).
The riches of our Shepley Collection still amaze me. Therefore I was not too surprised to see the notation on the back of the rare copy of the “Odes for the Fourth of July, 1796” broadside. Many of my favorite R.I.H.S. collection items are from the Shepley purchase. It included the Perpetual Almanack (1730; Alden 14) printed by James and Ann Franklin in Newport, twenty pamphlets printed by Gregory Dexter (1610-1700) before he joined Roger Williams in Providence, and 200 R.I. Revolutionary War Muster Rolls.
Thank you Colonel Shepley. And happy Fourth of July to all.
~ Phoebe Bean, Librarian