WORCESTER, Massachusetts — In a most unlikely location, a stately building 40 miles from the nearest seaport in a gritty former industrial city, there’s an astonishing stash of centuries-old memorabilia and historical curiosities from Hawaii.
A large collection of early Hawaiian books, pamphlets and engravings is housed and lovingly preserved at a modern archive bearing the old-fashioned name American Antiquarian Society, located on the fringe of downtown Worcester.
“Worcester is not a place people think of as a hotbed of Hawaiiana, but it is!” said Elizabeth Watts Pope, curator of books for the society, a 205-year-old institution that is one of the largest repositories of early printed materials in the Americas.
The venue holds one of the world’s most important Hawaiian collections, according to bibliophiles, as part of its massive inventory of more than 4 million pre-20th century items — books, magazines and newspapers housed on 25 miles of shelves.
“It’s one of the best collections there is of Hawaiian imprints,” said New Haven, Connecticut-based rare book dealer Bill Reese in an interview with Civil Beat.
The entire archive “is a national treasure house,” says historian David McCullough, best-selling author of “John Adams” and “The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal,” in an orientation video produced by the society in 2012.
Here you can find about 1,000 old items from Hawaii or related to the islands, all published before 1876 and including about 200 published in Hawaiian or other Polynesian languages. There are collections of 38 newspapers published in Hawaii, including 22 in English and 16 in Hawaiian — a total of 2,605 issues.
The collection includes published laws, brochures, broadsheets, hymnals, almanacs, cookbooks, primers and spelling books.
Another 1,000 or so books serve as secondary sources on Hawaii, including some published more recently. In addition, the society holds more than two dozen engravings made at the Lahainaluna Seminary on Maui, containing more than 50 images of life in Hawaii in the early-1800s.
About 10 percent of the Hawaiian collection hasn’t been fully catalogued because there’s been no money to do it, so more jewels may yet be found, Pope said.
Few people in Hawaii, even students of Hawaiian history, have ever heard of the American Antiquarian Society.
Most island residents “would probably be surprised to know it even existed,” said David Forbes of Honolulu, the preeminent expert on Hawaiian bibliography and printing. His books include “Engraved at Lahaina: A History of Print-Making by Hawaiians at the Lahainaluna Seminary, 1834-1844” and the monumental four-volume “Hawaiian National Bibliography, 1780-1900.”
“It’s one of the superior libraries of America in my book and I wish I could get there more often,” Forbes said. “You find amazing things there.”
In some cases, the holdings are duplicates of things that can be found in Hawaii at the state archives, the library, the University of Hawaii, the Bishop Museum or online through websites that focus on Hawaiian history. But other items are unique.
How’d so much stuff get here from 5,000 miles away? To some extent, it seems to have happened through a series of coincidences.
In the early-1800s, Worcester had myriad ties to Hawaii at about the same time the society began operating and when its founder was bolstering his collection of printed materials.
The founder of the American Antiquarian Society was a printer named Isaiah Thomas. Born poor, later an indentured servant, he came to believe in the transformative power of the written word to elevate the character of individuals and society itself, according to historian Philip Gura.
A fiery revolutionary who was attracting too much attention from British loyalists, Thomas moved to Worcester to protect his treasured printing press from damage or destruction at the hands of marauding British troops. This was a serious threat — in 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol to the ground, destroying the nascent Library of Congress.
Over the years, as Thomas’ business prospered, he began collecting books and old newspapers that would otherwise be thrown away. He wanted to create a history of publishing in America.
One of his first big purchases, in 1791, was an already-rare copy of the Indian Bible, translated by missionary John Eliot into Algonquin, published between 1661 and 1663. Thomas paid $7.50 at the time. A similar copy of the same book sold for $167,500 in 1999.
In 1812, Thomas established the American Antiquarian Society to house his burgeoning collection. At that time, according to Gura, Worcester had 2,500 residents and contained only about 120 houses, a courthouse, a jail and a schoolhouse. Like-minded scholars joined Thomas as members of his society.
Meanwhile, Worcester became a center of what is called the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement that swept the Northeastern United States in the early-1800s. Many young college-educated men and women, mostly from rural areas of New England, found a religious calling to preach the gospel overseas. The small-but-aspiring city of Worcester produced a number of these youths, and a number of older people who were willing to give money to send them off.
About that same time, hundreds of young Hawaiian men were pouring into New England after signing on in Hawaii as crewmembers aboard American merchant vessels or whale ships. Several turned up in central Massachusetts, and one Worcester resident in particular drew a flurry of attention.
It turned out that a young man named George Humehume, also known by the last names of Prince and Tamoree (spellings at the time were erratic) was an alii, the son of the king of Kauai, Kaumualii. He had been sent abroad for an education, but the man charged with caring for him went broke and died. Young Humehume wound up working as a laborer near Worcester, where he fell out of touch with other Hawaiians.
Humehume fought in the War of 1812 on the American side. His identity came to light when he was discovered working in a Boston-area shipyard by Hawaiians who knew who he was. The story created a sensation, appearing as front page news all over the country, including in Worcester, where residents noted that he had once lived among them, the unknown heir to a throne.
The evangelical societies decided to send missionaries to Hawaii, and it occurred to them it would be best if the missionaries were accompanied by Hawaiians who could vouch for them in the islands. And if one of the young men had important social standing back home and could help pave the way for the missionaries, so much the better. Humehume turned out to be perfect for this task.
Another link between Hawaii and Worcester came in the person of the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, a geologist and minister in the Boston area who was publisher of a newspaper called the Panoplist, or the Missionary Herald. He chronicled the advances of the missionary movement, including in Hawaii. Morse joined the Antiquarian Society during its first year, and a full set of the newspapers he produced about the missionary movement, including the immigration to Hawaii, are housed here.
Morse enlisted his own son, a young man who was a painter, to draw pictures of four of the young Hawaiian men, including Humehume, on a pamphlet that they circulated around New England as a fund-raising tool. The son, Samuel F. B. Morse, depicted the four with romantic Lord Byronesque visages, and money began to flow into the enterprise.
A copy of that pamphlet is still housed today at the archive, along with copies of the newspapers that touted the story.
The younger Morse, meanwhile, didn’t do that well as a painter but found eventual success as the inventor of the telegraph.
The first party of missionaries to Hawaii included two ministers, a half-dozen teachers, a doctor and four Hawaiians including Humehume. In addition — most notably for the eventual collection at the Antiquarian Society — there was a printer, his wife who was a bookbinder, and a broken-down, second-hand printing press.
An officer on the ship who transported them all, James Hunnewell, was there at the print shop in Hawaii on the day the first objects came off the press, and he retained a lifelong interest in the items that it produced, asking to be given one copy of each imprint.
In the next few decades, some 30 million pages of material were printed in the islands, much of it in the Hawaiian language. Hunnewell returned to New England, got rich and carefully preserved the items sent to him from Hawaii. At the end of his life he had amassed a huge collection and his heirs gave it to the Antiquarian Society.
Other large collections were given to the society from the personal libraries of missionaries Hiram Bingham and Samuel Damon.
“The story of printing in Hawaii is a remarkable one,” said Pope. “The people of Hawaii expressed an intense desire for palapala — a Hawaiian word that can mean literacy or reading, writing and printing — from the moment the first printing press arrived in 1820. Within a couple decades, the first newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains was started … By the 1840s the literacy rate was one of the highest in the world. Some claimed it was even higher than in New England.”
Over the years, much of the printing and engraving was done by Hawaiians, who became more skilled at operating the presses than the Americans, according to Pope.
Pope is from Connecticut and didn’t know much about the islands when she found herself the steward of the Hawaiian collection, along with many other items at the archive. She joined the staff in 2004 and in 2012 became curator of books.
Although she has never been to the islands, she has found herself particularly fascinated by the items from Hawaii. In the past few years, she has learned a lot about Hawaiian history through the printed materials she cares for and shares with visiting scholars.
In early November, Pope gave a talk at the famous Skinner auctioneering house in Boston about the collection, and the many links between New England and Hawaii.
She was delighted with the response to the talk, and has been pleased to receive inquiries from old New England families who are looking to find places for family heirlooms from Hawaii to be stored and shared. The Hunnewell family, for example, descendants of the ship’s officer, has a few unique items remaining in their hands, including an engraving of Punchbowl, that may find its way to Worcester.
“There’s still more out there that we want,” Pope said. “In the five years since I became curator of books, AAS has acquired roughly a dozen pre-1877 Hawaiian imprints through gift and purchase.”
Pope is preparing an online exhibit that will allow viewers to see some of the Hawaiian items. She wants more people in the islands to know about the collection.
“Obviously, institutions on the islands will always have the best collection of primary sources of Hawaiian history in situ — as it should be — so it is easily accessible to the Hawaiian people, but it is also critically important to have strong collections elsewhere to encourage better and broader understanding of Hawaiian history,” she said.
“After all, not all of us can get to the islands in person,” she said.
The Antiquarian Society’s commitment to collecting and protecting books has lasted more than 200 years, according to Forbes, the bibliophile from Hawaii. Over the years, “books came in the door one by one.”
Forbes thinks it is a good thing the books and other materials have been held in the more forgiving weather conditions in New England, where they are more likely to survive for longer use than they would in Hawaii and where they are made available to scholars from around the world.
“They have some of the best copies of books you’ll ever see because they are not in Hawaii, with mice, cockroaches, mold, warm air and termites — all the things that corrode,” he said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?