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Frederick Hill Meserve


Centurion, 1922–1962

Born 1 November 1865 in Boston, Massachusetts

Died 25 June 1962 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York

Proposed by Henry L. Stimson and Alfred E. Marling

Elected 4 March 1922 at age fifty-six

Archivist’s Note: Father-in-law of Richard Townley Paton; grandfather of Philip Kunhardt Jr. and David Paton

Century Memorial

One of our senior Centurions, Frederick Meserve died at the age of ninety-six. For forty of his years, he had been a member of the Century. By vocation, he was a business executive; in his avocation, he was one of the great amateurs of our time. His devotion was to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Along with that was his preoccupation with the memory of his own father who had risen from private in the Thirty-Fifth Massachusetts Infantry to major under General Burnside in the Civil War. Frederick Meserve himself had been born only a few months after that war ended. Fortunately, his father had kept a diary and by the time the boy was grown he knew it almost by heart.

When he was a young man, he found, one day, at an in consequential auction, a package tied with a string. He bought it for $1.10 and discovered that it contained a hundred or more prints of pictures illustrating the war. Many of them were photographs taken by the great Mathew Brady. These coincided with the aim which he had developed of illustrating his father’s diary. From this chance purchase his lifelong work of collecting Civil War treasures and Lincolniana had its inception. His vast collection has provided source material for every historian of the period.

In the early 1900s, Meserve bought 10,000 original Brady negatives. Among them were seven portrait photographs of Lincoln. He added to these 75,000 photographs of Americans who were famous theatrical figures in the post-1860 years of the nineteenth century, so that he was able to present historians with much cultural as well as political source material. Eventually there were some 200,000 portraits of the important men and women of the period in his collection.

A Centurion who is one of our most gifted American historians says of Frederick Meserve: “He was a combination of research worker, essayist, artist and dealer, who, by uniting these various vocations and avocations, did a great service to all students of American history in the period of sectional upheaval.”

Meserve has also been described as “a genial friend and host, whose home, crammed with negatives and positives upon the Civil War and Lincoln, was always open to visiting scholars.” Sculptors who modeled heads and figures of Lincoln for coins or other purposes always sought out the Meserve collection before they began work. Remembering these artists, Meserve once said: “I have known well and aided Adolph A. Weinman, Gutzon Borglum, Charles Keck, Truman H. Bartlett and Daniel Chester French. I have visited their studios and entered into their dreams.”

Frederick Meserve was born in Boston on November 1, 1865. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1892. As a young man his favorite exercise was walking. When he was twenty, he walked from Colorado Springs to Pike’s Peak and back, a distance of some forty miles in under twelve hours. An enthusiastic golfer always, he won, in 1946, the United States Senior Golf Association Award for members over eighty.

He has published Photographs of Abraham Lincoln in a limited edition and a twenty-eight volume set of Historical Portraits, which contains 8,000 photographs of the contemporaries of Lincoln. This, too, was first published in a limited edition, but later with the collaboration of Carl Sandburg came out in a trade edition.

Through generations of historians in the future, we shall come to know more and more of Lincoln and of the war that nearly destroyed the Union when new discoveries are made in the inexhaustible depths of the Meserve collection.

Roger Burlingame
1963 Century Association Yearbook