Dorchester Illustration no. 2344 Nahum Capen
Nahum Capen was a publisher and writer, tireless student of natural science and of politics, counsellor of statesmen and authors, Postmaster of Boston, 1857-61, and the originator of important improvements in the postal service. Capen lived at the top of Mt. Ida (Ronan Park).
Today’s illustration is an engraving published in Ballou’s Pictorial in 1859 along with an article about Capen.
Capen intended to go into medicine and began to study with Dr. Robert Capen, his brother, but ill health prevented him from continuing. At the age of nineteen he re-wrote Plutarch’s Lives, and his interest in literature led to joining the publishing and book-selling firm of Marsh, Capen & Lyon. Capen saw the genius of Hawthorne and published the author’s first work. The works of many well-known authors were published under his tenure.
In 1837 Mr. Capen wrote letters favoring an international copyright law (his own firm being the first, it is said, to pay a premium to foreign authors); and in 1844 he sent Congress an eloquent memorial advocating the passage of such a law.
After a trip to Europe, Capen, out of a wish to elevate the standard of education in this country, prepared plans for a preliminary school to be succeeded by a university. The interest which he manifested in the cause of education induced the Board of Education of Massachusetts to select Capen’s firm to publish the School Library, becoming ultimately 37 volumes approved for the use of schools.
President Buchanan appointed Capen Postmaster at Boston in 1857 in recognition of his eminent services to his party. Many improvements in the postal service date their origin from his official term, and were adopted at his suggestion. He is given credit for more improvements than had been adopted during the century up to that time, among them being the street letter boxes, stations of delivery in large cities, and free delivery.
Capen wrote three out of four projected volumes of The History of Democracy; or Political Progress historically illustrated from the Earliest to the Latest Period. The first volume of 700 pages was published in 1874, and volumes two and three were in manuscript form at his death in 1886.
He was also a believer in phrenology, a pseudo-science that has now been totally debunked as bonehead science. Phrenology is based on the belief that the shape of one’s skull indicates one’s character and mental ability.