New York City Membership Libraries in the 19th Century

In 1831, the year of its founding, two literary societies were formed at New York University. Arguably the most important function of these literary societies was providing access to the books held in their collections.The formation of these societies so early in the University's history highlights the importance books once played in furthering a student's studies outside of class. At the time there were two lending libraries in the city, but borrowing books from these institutions required a yearly membership fee, whereas University literary societies did not. Even if a student could and did pay the fee, these membership libraries were located far from the University, and did not relocate to Greenwich village until the latter half of the 19th century. However, these lending libraries began a literary revolution in 18th and 19th century New York City, ultimately facilitating the circulation of thousands of books in the late 1800s. This essay will discuss the development and transformation of New York City's membership libraries.

Four years before New York University opened, another organization was founded by the leading businessmen and merchants of the day, including John Jacob Astor. It was called the Clinton Hall Association and its goal was to support cultural institutions in New York City. The Association had a choice of two libraries to back: The New York Society Library and The Mercantile Library. In 1828 the Mercantile Library was less than a decade old, so the natural choice was the more venerable New York Society Library founded in 1754.

New York Society Library

The New York Society Library was founded by six men out of concern for the state of their city. They felt that even though New York City was the provincial capital and main commercial center, its citizens lacked “a spirit of inquiry” and that a collection of books was essential to further the city’s prosperity. Shares in the library were sold and shareholders gained the right to use the library and elect trustees. Non-shareholders were also allowed to borrow books but they incurred various fees depending on the size of the book desired. The men began their collection from books left over from a failed attempt to start a library in 1730 in City Hall. In the early years, developing the library's collection was difficult due to the scarcity of books in the colonies and the interruption of book orders from England by the French and Indian War. Eventually, the library received an official charter from King George III, but as soon as the Revolutionary War began, the board became too politically divided to continue meeting. In 1776 British troops moved into City Hall and both sides looted the library’s collection. Surprisingly a 1788 advertisement in a local paper asking for books back yielded a large number of donations. Combined with books hidden in St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan during the war, these returns boosted the library collection to 3,100 volumes.

Yet when approached with an offer to merge with the Clinton Hall Association in the 19th century, the New York Society Library rejected them and instead merged with the New York Athenaeum in 1840. The Athanaeum’s founding ideals imagined a livelier venue that was part museum and part lecture hall in addition to a library. Speakers such as


Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allen Poe lectured during this decade and the library became a destination for visitors to New York City such as Charles Dickens, Daniel Webster, and Napoleon III. Finally in 1855 the library moved to University Place and 12th Street. By this time the collection had reached over 70,000 volumes with an emphasis on biography, travel writing, literature, and New York City history.

The Clinton Hall Association and the Mercantile Library

Instead of supporting the New York Society Library, the Clinton Hall Association turned to the Mercantile Library. The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction began when William Wood placed a notice in the Daily Advertiser inviting merchants and clerks to a meeting on November 9, 1820, in order to discuss the potential creation of a library. Wood’s idea was to help transform young men just beginning their careers into the future leaders of business. His meeting was a huge success with 250 men in attendance. From here Wood went around the city with a wheelbarrow collecting book donations for the library, which opened February 1821 at 49 Fulton Street. In order to gain membership there was a one-time $1 initiation fee followed by a $2 yearly fee. By the end of 1851 there were 200 members and 1,000 volumes in the Mercantile Library. Established merchants and wealthy board members were supportive both in donating books and finances because they saw the library as a way to keep their employees away from unproductive places such as bars and billiard rooms.

When the Clinton Hall Association came on board in 1828, it transformed the library into a permanent holding company. Only the wealthy Association men and their descendants could hold shares in the library, thus creating an organization of successful older businessmen that was completely separate from the average clerks who ran the library. Astor purchased the first 10 shares for $100 each and soon the Mercantile Library became an important cultural institution. Just like the New York Society Library later in the 1850s, lectures were widely attended, featuring such guests as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Dana, and actress Fanny Kemble.

In 1854 the Clinton Hall Association moved the library to the Opera House at Astor Place and Lafayette.


Today. the an entrance to the library directly from the Astor Place subway station is still visible in the form of a bricked over doorway that reads “Clinton Hall”. After this move to Astor Place, regular membership was extended beyond just clerks to all “people of good character” including women. By the 1870s it was the 4th largest lending library in the country with over 120,000 volumes and 13,000 members. Circulation soon reached over 1,000 books a day and branches were opened not just in Manhattan, but in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Westchester. As a result, home delivery became a popular service (and a profitable one for the library) with over 11,000 books delivered to homes in 1870. These deliveries were often filled within a few hours of the member dropping off their card in the postal service box, because the library had its own horses and wagon with which to circulate books.

In 1890 the Opera House at Astor Place was razed and a new building took its place. This new structure on Astor Place featured the Mercantile Library on the 6th and 7th floors with the other floors rented out in order to make money for the Clinton Hall Association. However by the end of the century all libraries were experiencing difficulties, particularly threatened by the opening of the New York Public Library. By 1900 Mercantile Library membership had dropped to 5,000 and continued to decline from there. Today the library is no longer housed at Astor Place but the building remains, with condominiums on the upper floors and Starbucks on the ground floor.


Mark Bartlett and Sara Elliott Holliday, “The New York Society Library” in America’s Membership Libraries, ed. Richard Wendorf (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2007).

Noreen Tomassi with Mary Collins, “The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction” in America’s Membership Libraries, ed. Richard Wendorf (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2007).

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