While Philadelphia was establishing itself as a thriving center of Colonial-era trade and government, many of its residents sought opportunities for learning and culture. One of the ways they celebrated the importance of knowledge to the cause of freedom was by founding three special libraries.
Aspiring tradesmen hungry for self-improvement formed discussion groups where they could meet like-minded, ambitious and intellectually curious fellows who were eager to establish themselves and succeed in the community. One of those groups was the Junto, formed in 1727 by 21-year-old Benjamin Franklin.
Junto members were voracious readers who not only often referred to books in their discussions, but also wanted to get their hands on the latest texts. But booksellers in the colonies were few and far between, and Junto members were of such moderate means that they couldn’t afford importing books from abroad on their own. So Franklin came up with a plan.
On July 1, 1731, Franklin and 50 of his fellow Junto-ers founded a library. By investing 40 shillings each and paying 10 shillings a year thereafter, they could purchase books and maintain a subscription-based lending library that would be larger and better than any member could amass on his own. And so began the Library Company of Philadelphia, so-called because it was organized as a private stock company, where purchasing a share made a person an owner. Eventually, the Library Company would become what Franklin called “the Mother of all the North American Subscription Libraries” — an independent research library that is America’s oldest cultural institution.
Franklin’s ingenious solution to accessing books caught on, and subscription libraries began popping up along the Atlantic coastline. As he wrote in his autobiography, these libraries “improv’d the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen & Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defence of their Privileges.”
First, Franklin donated several of his own books to establish the Library Company’s core collection. Then, his fellow stockholders recommended the purchase of dictionaries and grammar books in various languages, together with works that reflected their interests. They deposited their suggestions in a painted tin box embellished with the following sentence: “Gentlemen are requested to deposit in the Lion’s Mouth the titles of such books as they may wish to have imported.”
The Library Company’s first order consisted of 141 useful, inexpensive books. Later, it purchased essential, but more costly colorplate volumes with full-page, hand-colored engravings, such as the second edition of Mark Catesby’s important Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Geographies, travel accounts, biographies, and works on history and science established the quality and comprehensiveness of the collection. Eventually, volumes on politics, science, medicine, agriculture, theology, philosophy, law, politics and literature were added. Donors even contributed artifacts like antique coins, fossils, geological formations and preserved fauna —- even the hand of a mummified Egyptian princess, courtesy of the artist Benjamin West.
First housed in the homes of its early librarians, the Library Company moved to the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, in 1739, then to the second floor of Carpenters’ Hall in 1773. As its collection and its prominence in Colonial America grew, rented quarters proved inadequate. In 1789, it acquired land on Fifth Street near Chestnut Street, across from State House Square. Two years later, Library Hall — a Palladian brick building with white pilasters, a balustrade adorned with urns, a curving double flight of steps, and a statue of Benjamin Franklin placed within an arched niche under a pediment — became its new home.
By 1880, even Library Hall wasn’t big enough, so the Library Company built a fireproof building at the corner of Locust and Juniper Streets and moved its collection there, where it still remains. Today, its holdings include rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, prints, political cartoons, photographs and portraits that document American history and culture from the Colonial period through the end of the 19th century.
The Library Company wasn’t Franklin’s only attempt to foster knowledge among his fellow Philadelphians. In 1743, he founded the American Philosophical Society to promote scholarship in the humanities and sciences. Since 1789, it has been headquartered in Philosophical Hall, next to Independence Hall.
Located across the street from Philosophical Hall in a replica of the Library Company’s former home, the American Philosophical Society Library specializes in early American history, Native American ethnography and linguistics, and the history of science, medicine and technology. Its collection includes manuscripts, scientific instruments, patent models, rare books, maps, drawings, paintings, prints, Benjamin Franklin’s personal papers, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition journals, which were donated by Thomas Jefferson, who was simultaneously president of the Society and of the United States.
Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America, an exhibit on view at the Society through December 30, 2016, features Jefferson’s collection of Native American languages. Jefferson formed the Society’s Historical and Literary Committee, which gathered information on the languages, histories and cultures of Native Americans.
In 1805, Native diplomats traveled to Washington, DC to meet with Jefferson and other officials. Charles Bird King, a local Washington artist, painted 143 oil portraits of these diplomats; hand-colored copies of them were printed in Thomas McKenney’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America. One of those diplomats was Sequoyah (George Guess), who developed a writing system for the Cherokee language in the 1820s. Instead of an alphabet based on the sounds of vowels and consonants, Sequoyah created a syllabary based on sounds of entire syllables.
The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, another membership library, was founded in 1814 to collect materials connected with the history and antiquities of America. Since 1845, its home has been in one of the first Italianate brownstone buildings in the nation, across from Washington Square, the center of publishing in Philadelphia for more than a century. Today, the Athenaeum’s collection focuses on the history of American architecture, building and interior design. It is furnished with American fine and decorative arts from the early- to mid-19th century.For more on the Library Company of Philadelphia, read “At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin”: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1731-1976; The Book Culture of a Colonial American City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen, and Booksellers; and Legacies of Genius: A Celebration of Philadelphia Libraries; A Selection of Books, Manuscripts, and Works of Art, all written or edited by Edwin Wolf II. Relying on the unique shelfmarks that Benjamin Franklin used to organize his books, Wolf located almost 4,000 books known to have been owned by Franklin and listed them in his The Library of Benjamin Franklin.
To commemorate the Library Company’s 275th anniversary, the August 2006 issue of Antiques was devoted to the library and its collection. Nine articles highlight publishers’ bindings, colorplate books, paintings and sculpture, clocks, 19th century Philadelphia advertising prints, American leisure in books and printed ephemera and Civil War-era ephemera.
In recent years, the Library Company has become a center for the study of 19th-century publishers’ bookbindings. From Gothic Windows to Peacocks: American Embossed Leather Bindings, 1825-1855, by Edwin Wolf II, a former librarian of the Library Company, focuses on American embossed leather bindings of the Victorian era. Andrea Krupp and Jennifer Woods Rosner, two members of the library’s conservation department, created a database of bookcloth grain patterns called Catalogue of Nineteenth-Century Bookcloth Grains to accompany Krupp’s Bookcloth in England and America, 1823 – 1850.
Click here to watch At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a tour of the Library Company that aired on C-SPAN BookTV on February 18, 1999.