Years ago, I read The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America, Thomas Augst’s account of how industrious young businessmen of the 19th century earnestly worked to improve themselves in their free time. Practicing penmanship, keeping diaries, writing letters, joining literary societies where they debated, delivered orations, and recited poetry; reading books, and attending lectures were all ways in which they developed their character and cultivated their mind. These ambitious fellows were William A. Alcott’s target audience for his book, The Young Man’s Guide, first published in 1832 and revised in multiple subsequent editions. “Let me repeat the assurance that, as a general rule, you may be whatever you resolve to be,” Alcott reminded his readers.
Many of these self-made men became members of mercantile libraries that were established in some American cities before public libraries became widespread. After a long day at work, a visit to the mercantile library allowed them to pursue their intellectual interests, gain useful knowledge, and converse with fellow clerks.
One of those mercantile libraries still exists in downtown Cincinnati. I was thrilled to see it for myself recently.
On April 18, 1835, 45 merchants and clerks in Cincinnati created the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association. Pooling their funds, they subscribed to newspapers and periodicals and established a book collection. Today, it is known as the Mercantile Library Association of Cincinnati.
The Mercantile Library moved to its present Walnut Street site in 1840, but the building in which it was housed burned down in 1845. A new building was constructed on the same site, but it, too, burned down in 1869. It was replaced by another building, but it was torn down in 1902 when it became outdated. In 1903, the current building was built, it was completed in 1908, and the library has been based on the 11th floor ever since. Alphonso Taft, an attorney who was the father of President William Howard Taft, wrote a lease that called for a 10,000-year occupancy with rent of $1.00 per year.
In 1839, the library created Cincinnati’s Chamber of Commerce. In 1843, it organized the Merchants’ Exchange, which collected steamboat schedules and other business-related information. For three years, the exchange maintained canal, river and railroad import/export records and information about steamboat arrivals and departures for local businessmen.
After using the Mercantile Library as guests, women first became nonvoting honorary members of the library in 1859. The first African-American member joined in 1872. Today, annual membership dues start at $55, and include borrowing privileges, use of the reading room and other benefits.
Over the years, the Mercantile Library has expanded its historic collection of more than 200,000 volumes with paintings, sculptures and other special objects, such as rare specimens of minerals. Examples include Hamlet and Ophelia, a painting by Ohio artist Lily Martin Spencer; a marble bust of George Washington by sculptor Hiram Powers, who worked in Cincinnati for a time; and a plaster copy of the marble bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that stands in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.
When visitors emerge from the express elevator to the 11th-floor hallway outside the entrance to the library, they are greeted by Silence, a marble statue of a woman standing with her index finger in front of her lips. It is a copy of a statue a Mercantile Library member saw in Paris, and it was acquired in 1856.
Many of the library’s bookshelves, desks and chairs date to its previous homes that were destroyed by fire. Tall, arched windows add elegance to the space. Since the building was built before the invention of the light bulb, glass floors in the steel-frame stacks allow light to filter through.
…and a performance stage were added at the south end of the reading room.
The Mercantile Library offers events of interest to anyone who enjoys books and reading. Since the 1840s, the library has hosted informative educational lectures given by distinguished speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Makepeace Thackeray, Herman Melville, Bret Harte, John Galsworthy, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Julia Child. President William Howard Taft was the speaker at the 75th anniversary celebration in 1910. Early lecture topics included the credit system; the history of banking; patriotism; the life and character of George Washington and William Shakespeare; German literature; and cultivation of the fine arts.
Rookwood pottery vases, a Stickley writing desk and bookcases filled with enticing volumes furnish the room, which affords a magnificent view of the Ohio River.
Bordering the ceiling of the room are 23 names of people who have lectured at the library.
Some of those same names adorn a bow tie especially designed for the library by BowTie Cause, a project of former Cincinnati Bengals player Dhani Jones. The library receives $10 of the $57 purchase price that recalls Jones’ football jersey number.
Many library events are scheduled at noon for the convenience of members and visitors who work downtown. Currently, these include a discussion group for “hard-boiled” mystery novels of the early decades of the 20th century, such as The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes (April 24); After Delores, by Sarah Schulman (May 8) and Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Letham (May 22). The library also offers an interest group for Scandinavian books, such as Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell (April 23) and My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 28).
A First Wednesday book discussion group will focus on Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand (May 6) and Middlemarch, by George Eliot (June 3). Gilbert King, author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, will deliver the library’s 1835 Lecture on April 20.
One of the library’s longest-running discussion groups, the Canon Club, concluded in December 2014 after having read Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works. The group also attended performances of the plays by The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. On May 13, the group will see and discuss Henry V. The Walnut Street Poetry Society meets monthly at noon and is focusing on African-American poets this year.
To discover more about the history of the Mercantile Library Association of Cincinnati, read At the Center: 175 Years at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, by Robert C. Vitz; Brilliance and Balderdash: Early Lectures at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, by Dale Patrick Brown; and “The Cincinnati Mercantile Library as a Business-Communications Center, 1835-1846,” by S.H. Barringer and B.W. Scharlott, from the Spring 1991 issue of Libraries & Culture, pages 388-401.