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Item of the Month: April 2010

Published: April 14, 2010 by Jill Wharton

George Perkins Marsh: The Consummate Collector

It was the 22nd of April 1846, when George Perkins Marsh delivered his decisive address to the U.S. House of Representatives, capping a decade-long struggle to establish the nation's “foremost library, for collections in the various branches of natural knowledge and of art…."

Read the "Speech of Mr. Marsh, of Vermont, on the Bill for Establishing The Smithsonian Institution" in our George Perkins Marsh collection here.

Three months following his official endorsement, the Congress passed legislation founding the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment dedicated to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," and President James K. Polk signed it into law the same day.

In 1849 the Smithsonian Institution purchased its first collection. The art books and works were commissioned by Regent Marsh, who had also been instrumental in securing an appointment at the Smithsonian for its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887). Baird, during his 1878-1887 tenure, focused on creating a great national museum which incorporated the government's newly-transferred collection of art works, historical memorabilia, and scientific specimens—formerly housed at the National Institute gallery in the Patent Office Building. Baird prepared all of the government exhibits for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, which granted the Smithsonian enduring national visibility.

Marsh, a committed environmentalist, philologist, ambassador (and sometime Vermont farmer), spent decades as a discerning bibliophile browsing the book-markets of Europe. His interests in linguistics—he spoke more than twenty languages—in scientific conservation, and in histories of New England and classical antiquity not only informed his desire to see the founding of the Smithsonian, they also infused collegiate life at UVM when, in the early 1880s, more than 12,000 volumes from his personal collection were acquired for our campus library by Frederick Billings—who also donated the funds for a magnificent new structure in which to house it:

Billings Library, photograph by Theron Dean, UVM Special Collections

The acquisition of Marsh's library, containing nearly complete archives of The Athaeneum, The Nation and the London Daily News (extending through the whole of the American Civil War), classed UVM holdings with those at Cornell, Yale, and Harvard, and remain the treasures of Bailey-Howe's Special Collections holdings today.