Lee & Shepard and the Great Fire

One of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript collection here at AAS is its collections focused on the book trade in America.  And one of the most interesting collections concerning the book trades is the business records of the Boston publishing firm, Lee & Shepard (for a PDF of the collection finding aid, click here). The 12 box collection features correspondence, book orders, and receipts from the founding of the business in 1860 until its incorporation with the Boston publishing house Lothrop & Company in 1906.  The collection has proved popular for researchers, especially those interested in finding letters from famous authors to the publishing firm.

But letters from authors are not the only exciting finds in the Lee & Shepard Collection.  While searching through the card file that indexes correspondences coming into the company, fellow AAS staff member Sally Talbot kept coming across letters that mentioned a fire.  A few Google searches later, and she discovered Lee & Shepard was a victim of the Great Boston Fire of 1872!  This “great” fire is said to be the worst in the city’s history, destroying much of downtown, hitting the financial district especially hard, where Lee & Shepard was located.  And if that discovery isn’t enough, how about this fun connection – the anniversary of the fire was just this past Tuesday, November 9th.  You can read a Boston Globe article about the fire here.

These letters show us how the fire impacted the company, and are an insightful look into how other companies were impacted as well.  Some folks were understanding – “Sorry you were burnt out,” sympathized Horatio Alger, Jr.  Others not so understanding, such as Mr. Armstrong, who reminded Lee & Shepard that they had already been given an extension, and will not be given another one – fire or no fire!

Many questions still remain.  How exactly did the fire physically and financially affect the company?  What buildings were burnt down?  Obviously they did not lose their records or paperwork, since we have this collection of papers.  However, perhaps the collection should be even larger, and some was indeed lost.  So what exactly did they lose, and how did they manage to recover?  And did Andrew Armstrong ever get his money?    More research is definitely in order!

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Tracey Kry

Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Assistant Reference Librarian, American Antiquarian Society

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