In the 1890s, Concord storekeeper Alfred Winslow Hosmer assembled an extensive Thoreau collection. His sustained collecting efforts were driven by an ardent desire to fan the flame of interest in the author and based on intimate familiarity with his world.
An eighth generation Concordian, Fred Hosmer was born to carpenter Nathan S. and Sophia Wheeler Hosmer on June 4, 1851. He was eleven years old when Thoreau died in 1862. Educated in the Concord schools, he attended MIT for a year, returned to Concord, worked briefly at carpentry, then took a job as a post office clerk. Around 1890, he became clerk in the dry goods store of Charles E. Brown on the Mill Dam and bought the business from Brown in 1898. Hosmer was involved in the social life of the town and in local amateur theatrical productions.
Fred Hosmer played an important role in establishing awareness of Thoreau as a major American author. Among the most vigorous of late nineteenth-century promoters of the author’s life and writings, he expressed his sympathy with Thoreau’s interests and aims through the creation of a photographic record of Thoreau’s world; through his own first-hand observation of Concord flora; through correspondence with others who recognized Thoreau’s importance; and by collecting Thoreauviana at a time when few thought it worthwhile.
By the 1890s, Fred Hosmer had become a proficient landscape and portrait photographer. He directed his efforts to capturing Thoreau country and capitalized on the developing Concord tourist trade, issuing cabinet card photographs of many local historical sites and landscapes. The sale of his Thoreau-related cabinet cards in his store made Hosmer the first in a long line of followers to simultaneously honor and market Thoreau. Hosmer also photographed local people and their children, pets, and homes.
In locating and photographing the landscape features about which Thoreau had written, Fred Hosmer helped subsequent generations to know the author’s Concord haunts—Walden Pond, Brister’s Spring, Fair Haven Bay, Clam Shell Hill on the Sudbury River, Egg Rock at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, Nut Meadow Brook, Old Marlborough Road, the Thoreau birthplace on Virginia Road, and the Main Street house in which Thoreau died. He also captured images of people associated with Thoreau. Hosmer used prints of his Thoreau-related images as a kind of currency in dealings with other Thoreauvians. He compiled hand-annotated albums including such photographs, and incorporated many in his grand project, an extra-illustrated (“Grangerized”) copy of the 1896 second edition of Henry Stephens Salt’s Life of Henry David Thoreau. Hosmer images were used to illustrate Annie Russell Marble’s Thoreau: His Home, Friends, and Books (1902) and the Houghton Mifflin 1897 edition of Thoreau’s Walden and 1917 edition of Frank Sanborn’s The Life of Henry David Thoreau.
Hosmer followed Thoreau’s example by keeping manuscript records of the plant life of Concord, documenting blooming times and other data. He also corresponded with botanical specialists, and during his lifetime his expertise was recognized through the publication of articles on Concord plants in the journal Rhodora.
Fred Hosmer corresponded with a number of other early Thoreauvians, most significantly Samuel Arthur Jones, a physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Working at a great distance from Concord on Thoreau-related publications (among them his 1894 Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau), Jones depended on Hosmer for information and source material. Hosmer also exchanged letters with English author, naturalist, and social reformer Henry Stephens Salt, the first edition of whose biography of Thoreau appeared in 1890, the second—improved by information forwarded by Hosmer and Jones—in 1896. Other Hosmer contacts included Thoreau friends Harrison Gray Otis Blake and Daniel Ricketson and Thoreau correspondent Calvin H. Greene; Elias Harlow Russell, who inherited Thoreau’s manuscript journal volumes from Blake; printer Edwin B. Hill; and Alexander H. Japp, whose Thoreau: His Life and Aims was published in London in 1877 under the pseudonym H. A. Page.
Hosmer avidly collected first and later editions of Thoreau’s writings, Thoreau manuscript items, printed and manuscript material about Thoreau, and artifacts. As he assembled his Thoreau collection, he solicited recollections, letters, and manuscripts from people who had been in one way or another associated with the author. From the mid-1890s into the first years of the twentieth century, he gathered much material—including Thoreau manuscripts—along with photographs (his own work and that of others) into a copy of the second edition of Salt. The process of extra-illustration expanded the single volume of Salt as published into two fat volumes, which Hosmer annotated and indexed by hand.
Never married, Fred Hosmer died in Concord in May 1903. The Concord Free Public Library holds his Thoreau library (of which the Grangerized Salt is part), hundreds of letters from his Thoreau correspondents, his botanical papers (manuscripts, correspondence, and articles), more than eight hundred of his original glass plate negatives, and many examples of his albums of Concord images. Most of this material was given to the library by his nephew Herbert Buttrick Hosmer in 1949. Building on existing subject strength, Hosmer’s rich private collection reinforced the library’s established role as a major Thoreau repository.
13. Alfred Winslow Hosmer. Photograph of Thoreau’s flute, spyglass, and bird book, [189-].
14. Alfred Winslow Hosmer. Photographic self-portrait, [189-]
15. Harrison Gray Otis Blake. Autograph letter, signed, Worcester, [Mass.], to “Mr. Hosmer,” September 6, 1890.
16. Walton Ricketson. Autograph letter, signed, New Bedford, Mass., to “Dear Mr. Hosmer,” Aug. 5, 1902.
17. Samuel Arthur Jones. Typed letter, signed, to “Dear Mr. Hosmer,” Ann Arbor, July 15, 1890.
18. Henry Stephens Salt, as enhanced by Alfred Winslow Hosmer. Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Walter Scott, 1896): Alfred Hosmer’s Grangerized (extra-illustrated) copy of the second edition of Salt’s biography, the original single volume expanded to two volumes through the addition of photographs, letters, and manuscripts between 1896 and 1903.
19. Henry David Thoreau. Walden; or, Life in the Woods . . . (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854).
20. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, editor. The Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885).