French Connections: Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare and the Boston Public Library

Charles Follen McKim, the principal architect of the firm chosen to design the Boston Public Library, attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and modeled the McKim Building after the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement.

One of my favorite pastimes while exploring cities in the United States is unearthing little known facts about their connections with France. Thanks to Boston's French Secrets: Guided Walks That Reveal Boston's French Heritage, a fascinating book given to me by Boston friend Marilyn, my quest for insights into the 300 year relationship between Boston and France was made much easier during my recent visit to New England.

With its magnificent arched windows, cluster of wrought iron lanterns and tablets inscribed with the names of the great masters of art, science, religion and statesmanship, the Boston Public Library at Copley Square was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim to resemble a university library in Paris, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement. But what's even more exciting is that the first free library in the United States actually got its start thanks to the persistent efforts of a Frenchman, Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare.

Statue of Science outside the Boston Public Library

According to Rhea Hollis Atwood, the author of Boston's French Secrets, Vattemare sailed to New York in 1839 and visited each of the 26 states to introduce the idea of a free exchange of books and prints between French and American libraries. Much to the French aristocrat's dismay, however, private institutions that charged membership fees to borrow books vehemently objected to his plan. As New England seemed to be the only part of the country that was even remotely receptive to the concept of free, tax-supported public libraries, Vattemare focused all of his attention on Boston.

After meeting with Mayor Josiah Quincy and the directors of several libraries controlled by private associations, Vattemare sent a crate of French books, maps and engravings to Boston as a gift from the city of Paris. This selection, which was to form the nucleus of the Boston Public Library's collection, was rather ignominiously relegated to the third floor of City Hall on School Street. Perhaps it's because the city's fathers weren't quite sure what to do with such technical books as Reports of the Labors of the Paris Board of Health from 1829 to 1839 and Regulations Concerning the Sale of Spirituous Drinks in 1837 [in Paris] that the volumes gathered dust on the top floor of City Hall for years.

Nonetheless, Vattemare wasn't one to give up on his dream. He continued to correspond with Mayor Quincy on a regular basis and even brought a second load of books for the citizens of Boston. Finally, the Frenchman's goal was achieved in April 1848 when a statute was enacted to establish and maintain America's first free public library supported by taxation, the Boston Public Library.

While the city has almost completely forgotten Count Vattemare's pivotal role in their venerable institution, his motto "Give with joy, receive with gratitude" continues to greet visitors as they enter the McKim wing.

Tomorrow's post will reveal some of the treasures of the Boston Public Library.

Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare, a French ventriloquist, actor, aristocrat, writer and philanthropist, was the first to propose the idea of a free public library supported by taxation to the city of Boston.


  1. Huh, the things I didn't know!

    ...also, they have afternoon tea! Next time you're here we'll have to go! :)

  2. Very interesting! I'll have to look out for the book and some of these areas next time I'm in Boston. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Yay for libraries! A toast to Count Vattemare and his collection of amazingly interesting books ;)

  4. Thanks for this fascinating information about the "BPL" (as we native Bostonians call it!) It is a lovely building set amidst the wonderfully varied architecture of Copley Square. Ah, you have succeeded in making me rethink a late summer trip home..........

  5. Pleased you enjoy my sleuthing of the fascinating Count Vattemare. Loved giving this French renegrade credit for giving Bostonians a large slice of first public-supported library. Actually giving Boston's French Secrets an upgrade early 2016 by fact-checker to note building and address changes. History lives on!!
    Moving back to Paris tomorrow Dec 3rd to finish book about Huguenots' Migrations. Greatly admire your wide range of Paris-related lore. Will be in touch, Rhea Hollis Atwood


Post a Comment