Women Who Shaped BPL: Sally Inman Kast Shepard, First Female Donor

“. . . an act of liberality which will secure Mrs. Shepard a permanent place among the library's distinguished benefactors”
Third Annual Report of the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1855

From the early days of the Boston Public Library (then called the Public Library), women were very active and very generous donors of pamphlets, newspapers, books, manuscripts, works of art, and even their own private libraries. The Library, however, also needed funds to grow the collections. In 1855, four people gave financial contributions to the Boston Public Library. One of them was the first woman to do so: Sally Inman Kast Shepard.

Mrs. Sally Inman Kast Shepard, (d. 1868) was the daughter of the well-respected Dr. Thomas and Hannah Haskins. She was baptized in 1781 in Trinity Church. In 1826, she married Reverend George Champlin Shepard and lived in Stratford, Connecticut from 1829-1839. During this time, their portraits were painted by the American folk artist Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900). After a trip to Europe, they moved to Jamaica Plain where Rev. Shepard served at St. John's Episcopal Church until 1845. The Shepards remained in Boston after Reverend Shepard retired and continued doing good works in their community.

Sally Inman Kast Shepard is best known for having “placed in the hands of Dr Shurtleff, the sum of one thousand dollars, to be expended forthwith in the purchase of books for the library” (The New York Times, September 20, 1855). Her letter to Dr. Shurtleff, which was published in the Proceedings on the Occasion of the Laying of the Corner Stone in 1855, resonates with civic pride that all Bostonians feel about the library and is eerily prescient of the words “Free To All” that has been its promise from the beginning:

Dear Sir, —As you know I have, from the first, taken a lively interest in the success of the Boston Free Public Library, I herewith remit you one thousand dollars, to be expended in the immediate purchase of books for the same.

Being a native of this City, where, also, both my parents were born and spent their days, it will ever afford me pleasure to know that an institution, fraught with so much good to the citizens of every class as this Library must be, continues to grow and flourish.

You will please to see that this donation is appropriated as above requested, and so oblige . . .

During the laying of the cornerstone of the first library building, five donors were singled out in the opening remarks. Three of them—Joshua Bates, Alexandre Vattemere, and John Prescott Bigelow—had such a substantial impact on our library that their names are inscribed in the lobby floor of our McKim Building today. Also included in those five was “the liberal lady”: Sally Inman Kast Shepard. Her donation not only helped the founding of the Boston Public Library but also set a precedent for the generations of substantial contributions from women who believed in the same mission of a library that was free for all.