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The Concord Museum’s Henry David Thoreau Collection, the world’s largest collection of objects related to Concord’s native son, numbers over 250 artifacts—furniture, ceramics, glass, metalwork, books, photographs, manuscripts, and textiles. The Museum is honored to be the steward of this national treasure.
Most of the household and personal objects that can reliably be associated with Henry Thoreau (1817–1862) and his family are in the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. Remarkably, half of the 250 objects in the Thoreau collection came to the Museum, directly or indirectly, through one source, Sophia Thoreau. Sophia Thoreau helped manage her brother’s literary legacy in the years immediately following his death, and she is largely responsible for the preservation of his material legacy as well. Other than Sophia’s, there are three principal names that can be associated with the core of the Thoreau collection: Cummings Davis, George Tolman, and Daniel Ricketson.
The other half of the collection, about 125 additional items, came from individual donors—more than fifty of them over the past 125 years—or through purchase. It is by these means that the collection continues to grow.
Henry Thoreau is best known as the author of Walden, universally acknowledged to be one of the great books of American literature, and of “Civil Disobedience,” one of the most influential essays in the worldwide democratic tradition. Thoreau’s name has become almost synonymous with two themes, the love of nature and uncompromising ethical values.
Thoreau believed that the attempt to understand human concerns in the context of nature helped provide guidance for the proper conduct of life. He directed his career as a writer toward making that realization possible for others. Among those who give Thoreau credit for shaping their own thought were John Muir, who originated the modern environmental preservation movement; Theodore Roosevelt, who helped make preservation a function of the national government; and Rachel Carson, whose own writing helped form the modern conception of environment. His writing inspired Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s and Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s, linking Thoreau to the formation of the modern states of South Africa, India, and Pakistan, and the American Civil Rights movement.
Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. The third of the four children of John and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, he had an older sister, Helen; an older brother, John; and a younger sister, Sophia. A graduate of Harvard (1837), Thoreau was part of New England’s intellectual elite, which, through the influence of his neighbor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, was (in the 1840s) largely centered in Concord, Massachusetts. After graduating, he returned to Concord and began to teach, first at the public school and then in a school he set up with his brother, John.
Before beginning to teach, Thoreau had determined that his real life’s work would be as a writer. The same year he began the school, 1838, Thoreau began his journal which he would continue for the rest of his life. In his journal, Thoreau recorded thoughts and observations. Thoreau used the journal as a resource for lectures and essays, but he was also satisfied with it as an independent work.
John Thoreau’s illness prevented his teaching after 1840 (he died the next year), and the school closed. Afterward, Thoreau tried by various means to support himself in such a way that he could continue to write. He helped his father manufacture pencils, tutored Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nephew in New York, and boarded for a while in the Emerson house in Concord, helping out while Emerson was away lecturing.
Then, in 1845, Thoreau went to Walden Pond, about two miles from the center of Concord, to live in a house he had built on some land that belonged to Emerson, and to write. His most productive period as a writer began during the two years he spent at the pond. Here he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, as well as the first draft of Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience.”
After leaving Walden in 1847, Thoreau continued to find ways to support himself while writing. His principal paying employments after 1849 were pencil making and surveying. His parents’ house on Main Street in Concord remained Thoreau’s home from 1850 until his death in 1862. He made several excursions, from a few days to a few weeks in duration, to Cape Cod, Maine, and Canada. These provided material for essays published in periodicals during his lifetime and gathered posthumously into three books, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, and A Yankee in Canada. Most of Thoreau’s writing, except for two books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden, and more than a dozen essays, including “Civil Disobedience” and “A Yankee in Canada,” was published after his death.