thomas hancock, bookseller -- 8/31/20

Today's selection -- from American Rebels by Nina Sankovitch. John Hancock's uncle and guardian, Thomas Hancock, made his fortune as a bookseller:

"In July 1744, Thomas Hancock, younger brother to the recently deceased Reverend John Hancock, traveled from Boston to Lexington. Accompanied by his wife, Lydia, he traveled in a sturdy black coach edged in gilt and upholstered in thick maroon velvet. It was a fine coach but nothing like the one Thomas had ordered from England, due to arrive any month now. The new coach would be ivory-colored, with silver trim; the coat of arms that Thomas had fashioned himself -- an emblem with three cocks, a dragon's tail, and a raised fist -- would be painted in red and gold over its doors. Underneath the coat of arms, in gold script, the coach maker had been ordered to carefully paint the family motto that Thomas had invented: Nul Plaisir Sans Peine. No pleasure without pain.

"Thomas and Lydia now traveled to Lexington to save their fatherless nephew John from a life of pain and bring him into a life of pleasure, in the form of wealth, education, and privileges that he had never imagined.

"Thomas was the second-born son of the Bishop of Lexington. While his brother John went off to Harvard to become a minister, Thomas was told by his father to find a trade. At age thirteen, he left home and went to find work in Boston. He found a place as apprentice to a bookseller named Samuel Gerrish. Boston at that time was the biggest town in North America and the center of everything, including the publishing and selling of books. The people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony prided themselves on their high levels of literacy and their huge appetites for books of all kinds. Gerrish's shop, located on Cornhill Street, one of Boston's busiest, did a lively business.

View of Hancock's house from across the Common, 1768

"Under an agreement signed between the Bishop of Lexington and Samuel Gerrish, Thomas served for seven years as Gerrish's apprentice, learning all the ins and outs of the bookbinding trade and working in return for no wages (he would be provided with food, drink, lodging, and laundry services). The contract further required that 'Matrimony he shall not contract, Taverns and Alehouses he shall not frequent, at cards, dice, or any other unlawful games he shall not play.'

"Having completed his seven years of learning, servitude, and good behavior, at the age of twenty-one Thomas set up his own shop selling books. He took out a notice in the Boston papers: 'Thomas Hancock, at the sign of the Bible and Three Crowns, has for sale, The Danger of People's Losing the Good Impressions made by the late awful Earthquake, A Sermon Preached a Month after it Happened, by the Rev. Mr. Cooper, and all manner of other improving tracts.'

"Within a few years, his inventory included 'Bibles large and small, Testaments, Psalters, Psalm Books with tunes and without, Singing-Books, School-books .... Also Pressing Cartridge and Writing Paper, Books for Accounts or Records, Ink, Quills, Sealing-Wax, Inkhorns, Spectacles, Lettercases ... and all sorts of Cutlery ware at the lowest prices .... Books are also rebound.'

"But Thomas' ventures soon expanded even further. He began to invest in enterprises run by established Boston merchants, inspired by the example set by an older bookseller by the name of Daniel Henchman. Henchman had a reputation for both boldness and independence -- he had printed the Bible for distribution without the required approval of the king -- and enjoyed a growing fortune built on his daring investments.

"Thomas saw Henchman as not only a potential partner for ambitious ventures but also a possible father-in-law; he had met and admired Henchman's daughter, Lydia, and soon sought her hand in marriage. The couple were married in 1730. Thomas was twenty-seven and Lydia was sixteen. It was by all accounts a happy marriage for both Lydia and Thomas, and both son-in-law and father benefitted from their commercial connections.

"Within just a few years, Thomas had moved well beyond books and was exporting rum to Newfoundland, oil to London, and fish to Spain. He'd invested in his own ships, commissioning the building of the Thomas and the Lydia for shipping goods from America to be sold in the West Indies and bringing goods from London to be sold in America. His stores and warehouses still sold books but also just about everything else anyone might want. The umbrella under which all his enterprises operated was called the House of Hancock.

"By the year 1737 Thomas had become so wealthy that he was able to build a mansion for himself and Lydia on Beacon Hill. He bought land all around it to create an estate of rolling meadows, overflowing flowerbeds, and row upon row of fruit trees, including plum, peach, apricot, nectarine, pear, mulberry, gooseberry, and cherry. Most of the plants and trees were imported from England, but Thomas also sent out notices for sea captains to be on the lookout in any country they visited for 'any small thing to beautify my garden.'

"The furnishings for inside the house were also largely imported from England: not only the chairs, tables, and settees for the many rooms but also the glass for the mansion's fifty-four windows, the stone hearths, tiles for the fireplaces, customized wallpaper, and intricately carved and twisted balusters for the wide staircase in the vast entrance hall. The house itself was built of granite culled from quarries in Braintree. Granite stairs led from street to home, and above the front entranceway, a large stone balcony gave out on the Boston Common. Thomas said of his new estate, 'the Kingdom of England don't afford so fine a Prospect as I have.'

"As happy as Lydia and Thomas were together, and as wealthy as they were, they were unable to fulfill one of their most ardent wishes: to have a child. After Thomas' brother John died, it seemed the natural course of things' to take on his oldest son as their protege and adopted son. They would bring John Hancock to Boston to be educated, loved, and launched into the world as a representative of the House of Hancock.

"It would not have taken long for young John to pack up his belongings in Lexington; little that he had there, where he lived off the frugal generosity of his grandfather, would be needed in Boston. For John's mother, Mary, the decision to let her son go to Boston was an easy one. Her own prospects were dim, living as she did with her father-in-law; she knew that if her son John got on well under the tutelage of Uncle Thomas, he would help out his two siblings in a way that the old bishop could not. She bid her son to do his best and write often, and promised there would be visits between the families. Thomas promised the same, and John took his leave of Lexington."



Nina Sankovitch


American Rebels


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2020 by Nina Sankovitch


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