Born in Lancaster in 1808, the seventh child of the Reverend Nathaniel Thayer and his wife Sarah, Nathaniel Thayer was educated entirely in this town. At an early age, he chose a career in business. Successful from the start, he eventually joined the banking house of his brother John, taking it over upon John’s death in 1857. This firm, which was involved in financing the building of railroads and the organization of manufacturing companies, made him one of the wealthiest men in New England.
Although Mr. Thayer and his family lived for only part of the year in the house, which he had built in Lancaster (they spent winters in Boston and summers in Newport), the town was his legal residence from 1870 until his death in 1883. He expressed his affection for his birthplace through a number of gifts, among which were the several contributions he made to the Lancaster Town Library. In 1866, he endowed this library with $5,000, the interest from which is still used to purchase books. He also gave the bulk of the money needed to build the original portion of the present library building. In addition, during the 1860’s and beyond, he contributed in a more personal way, by donating hundreds of volumes from his own collection and by purchasing volumes specifically for the library.
The volumes that Mr. Thayer gave to the new public library indicate that he was a man of broad interests and considerable learning and also a discriminating collector of books. He donated quantities of English literature and drama, as well as some classical and European literature. He gave many volumes of history (including American history), a substantial number of reference works, and some periodical literature, theology, and natural history, among other categories of books. Those of his gifts that are found in the Rare Book Collection suggest that he had a fondness for finely illustrated books, a taste for handsome leather bindings, and a preference for volumes in collector’s condition.
It is appropriate that the room that houses so many volumes from Nathaniel Thayer’s library is named the Constance V. R. Thayer Dexter Special Collections Room. By his marriage in 1846 to Cornelia Van Rensselaer of New York, Nathaniel Thayer had seven children. Mrs. Dexter (1900-1976), who endowed the Rare Book Room, was a granddaughter of Mr. Thayer, the daughter of his son Bayard.