Library Hall

The Newark Library Association on Market Street. Courtesy Newark Public Library.

CONVERSATIONS on the New York train touched on topics from the mundane to the sublime, but among a few regular Newark commuters the talk revolved, more often than not, around books. One morning in 1846, as we’re told, the discussion veered from the contents of books to their numbers and distribution: shelves in some homes groaned beneath the weight of them, if they hadn’t–as was their habit–spilled onto every available space and surface. At the same time, very few Newarkers could make such a complaint: the vast majority had no libraries, nor access to any. Many could not so much as call a single book their own.

As the story goes, one passenger remarked, “I have some five or six hundred books and propose to give them for a circulating library in Newark.” Others responded with enthusiasm, making similar offers, and soon a movement was afoot to endow their city with an institution it had long felt the want of. Naturally the idea had more complex origins than a mere conversation on a train. The drive to give Newark its first public library was by no means linear, yet William A. Whitehead, one of those diurnal train passengers, has a place at the very center of it.1

Newark’s annals record a number of earlier libraries but most, it seems, had come and gone–or gone dormant–within a few years of their creation.2 The latest prior establishment, combining books of the Young Men’s and Mechanics’ Societies, became insolvent and “vanished” soon after it appeared in 1837.3 By the 1840s the city’s bookstores were helping to fill the void; some of them even operated lending libraries. Yet a reader lamented that the 200 or so circulating books of printer, binder and bookseller Benjamin Olds represented “the only accessible library in the place.”4

Newark’s supposed destitution when it came to books was worsened by an exponential increase in the need for them, real or perceived. The city’s population had been steadily on the rise; unrelenting industrialization cluttered its once bucolic landscape with workshops and factories, plus boarding houses for the thousands of laborers required to keep them running. Many in Newark’s establishment were highly attuned to the social ills that came with growing numbers of young, rootless “journeymen and mechanics,” most of them male and beyond the grasp of school, liable to waste their unstructured hours and their wages in idle and even destructive pursuits.

The organizers of the library campaign hoped less to unburden themselves of unwanted books than to rescue these youths–and protect the broader citizenry–from unseemly influences. But many also suspected that other cities would overshadow Newark until it developed cultural amenities commensurate with its size and importance. The founding of the New Jersey Historical Society and the hope that Newark would be made the site of its collections served to amplify the sense that formation of a public library could wait no longer.5

In November 1845 a meeting was announced, then abruptly cancelled, after discussion of “various plans” for a public library had “deeply engaged the attention and reflection of some of our citizens.”6 Another ten months were to pass before such reflection turned to a plan of action. An unsigned article in the Newark Daily Advertiser appealed to the city’s leading men of business–its “Merchant Princes”–to pledge, through a joint stock company, “a sufficient sum to erect a proper building, on condition that a further sum be raised among the citizens generally…”7 The next evening, “a large and respectable meeting” voted to support formation of a permanent “Mechanics’ Institute or Lyceum and library.8 From this assembly emerged a Lyceum Association, with committees charged to develop plans for a lyceum, a library and evening schools for workers. Appointees to the Library Committee included two companions on the daily train to New York: the Reverend Samuel I. Prime and William A. Whitehead.9

Samuel Irenæus Prime.

Samuel Irenæus Prime in the 1840s commuted from his Newark home to the offices of the New York Observer, the popular religious weekly of which he was chief editor and eventual publisher. A onetime pastor, he was admired for his “vivacity of thought and speech” and for a “quiet, quaint humor, perhaps more effective because less expected from one of his cloth.” The amiable Prime was “diminutive in stature, but with a briskness of gait,” and “always ready with heart, hand and voice to aid in any public charity or scheme for public usefulness.”10 He was the perfect partner of Whitehead in leading the library campaign, and each would credit the other with the inspiration and energy that brought it to fruition.

In Prime’s view earlier efforts, however well-intentioned, had stalled because they were insufficiently democratic. “We had been looking too high,” he thought, “for wealthy individuals to make large donations. We must bend our necks a little and look lower–we must begin on a small scale.”11

At a public meeting on 23 October 1846, Whitehead presented the Library Committee’s plan. It established a “Newark Library Association” in the form of a joint stock company; shares would cost $25 each, payable in six installments. The Association expected to raise at least $15,000, of which two-thirds–four hundred shares–must be subscribed for the project to advance. Stockholders would be liable to yearly fees, reduced in proportion to the number of shares bought. In return they’d receive borrowing privileges, free admission to the future reading room and all Association events, and, if holding more than one share, the ability to designate a deserving youth “to draw from the library one volume at a time.” With Newark’s young wage-earners especially in mind, the plan also allowed non-stockholders to borrow books for a fee:

For three months, seventy five cents. For six months, one dollar twenty-five cents. For one year, two dollars.

And to those under eighteen years of age these terms shall be reduced one half.

The library plan, moreover, envisioned lectures and discussions on literary and scientific subjects, providing thereby “a Lyceum of the highest order and widest usefulness.”12 The Lyceum Committee, finding its objectives embraced in this scheme, agreed to take no further action of its own, and would eventually disband.13

The Library Committee (soon the “General Committee”) now launched an aggressive campaign to secure subscriptions. It recruited volunteer agents, ten (later fifteen) in each of Newark’s four wards, and published their names in the Advertiser.14 At first sales were brisk, with 250 shares subscribed in the first ten days, but a week later only 50 more pledges had been recorded. Some Newarkers saw the effort as destined to join a long list of previous failures; others doubted the city’s legions of young workers would feel any impulse to visit a library.15

The library’s proponents took to the newspapers, sharing stories of lowly tradesmen whose introduction to books and reading had led them to positions of great power and influence. “We shall not have the Library unless the community is more effectually roused,” they warned.16 The editor of the Advertiser, an early champion of the cause, chastised the citizenry for its languid response and the materialism at its root: “If we could promise that every leaf of scientific knowledge to be obtained in a Library should turn to a bank note, though of the humblest denomination, the proposed work would be secured without another word.”17

At the next general meeting, with Newark’s mayor in the chair, the urgency was palpable. For the first time “the presence and co-operation of the Ladies” was explicitly encouraged. Reverend Prime cautioned that if 40 more shares weren’t sold the project would be abandoned, while two hundred additional shares must be subscribed to ensure success. A series of stirring orations had their effect: by meeting’s end the critical pledges were made, and the 400-share threshold was reached and surpassed. Whitehead, recording the proceedings as secretary, noted considerable exultation “that the benefits of a PUBLIC LIBRARY would soon be enjoyed.”18

A final push brought 150 more subscriptions, and at the last public meeting of 1846 the final fifty shares were taken. When all sales were tallied up, 319 subscribers were found to have purchased 645 shares, all in a little over two months.19

The exertions that brought about this happy result remained unmeasured and largely absent from the public record. Subscription agents were urged to importune “every person within the circle of their acquaintance (and out of it too).”20 Whitehead, years later, remembered the pains taken by Prime and himself to seek out possible subscribers, and then counter their objections: “It was a labor requiring great devotion, admitting of no relaxation,” he recalled, one pursued “in all weathers, regardless of rebuffs.”21

Whitehead and Prime headed the list of thirteen directors elected in January 1847 to one-year terms. A charter from the state legislature was secured the following month, coincidentally on Whitehead’s birthday. A Broad Street location for the library had long been desired, but proved unworkable. In June, the Association purchased a substantial lot on the north side of Market Street, steps west of Broad. Known as the Johnson property, it had a 51-foot frontage and measured 180 feet in depth. Along one side ran Cammack’s Alley, what would come to be known as Library Court.22

Selling off the structures then standing on the lot and soliciting and revising plans for a new building consumed the summer months, and construction began that fall.23 The Library Association’s home at 115-117 Market Street, designed by New York architect Joseph C. Wells, had two segments: a square block in front, three stories high with a crenellated façade of local stone, and a single-story lecture room in the rear. Ground-floor space in the main building was rented for shops, while the library proper occupied the second floor. Rooms at the top were set aside rent-free for the Historical Society, which used them for the next twelve years.24

Elizabeth C. Kinney.

At the opening exercises of Library Hall, held 21 February 1848, Whitehead welcomed the city’s inhabitants to “a place where all, of every class and condition, may increase their intellectual stores …, where the wonders of nature and of art–the mysteries and the revelations of science–the practical bearing of important discoveries–and the value of novel inventions–may in turn be presented for their admiration, their instruction, or their investigation.” Prime, while tracing in the keynote address the descent of the present institution from the Egypt of the Ptolemies, insisted that Newark’s was to be “a library for the people. … In all essential respects it is a FREE library: such restrictions only being thrown around it as shall secure it from abuse and promote its healthful increase.” The ceremonies concluded with an ode composed for the occasion by Elizabeth C. Kinney, whose husband edited the Advertiser. Notices in the paper referred to her merely as “a Lady of this city,” and her verses were recited by a brother of Reverend Prime.25

In its first several weeks the library’s lecture hall saw extensive use, beginning with talks by educational theorist and New Jersey native Enoch C. Wines, although the first of them was pre-empted by a public meeting on the passing of John Quincy Adams.26 The space hosted popular concerts, church services, meetings and spectacles–including Antonio Spinetto and his troupe of “one hundred learned canary birds.”27

The success of the library itself was harder to gauge. After its second summer, Whitehead felt the need to restate in the pages of the Daily Advertiser the institution’s advantages for Newark’s young workforce. Employers should make these benefits “more distinctly known,” he felt, to discourage youths from resorting to “less respectable establishments.” Whitehead was all too familiar with the objection that young people “have no taste for reading, no love for books, no desire to improve their minds…” This was true of some, he conceded, “but there must be many who require only to be brought within reach of such advantages to profit by them to their full extent. A mere lounger in a library must be benefitted by the association it creates.”28

When Whitehead made his plea he was the Library Association’s secretary. Within a few years its fortunes would concern him still more as its president. On the tenth anniversary, he could report that the Association was free of debt and the quantity of volumes on its shelves had grown markedly. But the small number of patrons indicated “a want of appreciation, not only of the extent and richness of our collection of books, but also of the advantages flowing from its use…”29

There had been no improvement on this score when, the following year, “several Directors and other gentlemen connected with the Institution” asked Whitehead to sit for a portrait, to be hung in the library reading room. Although he gave his consent, Whitehead suggested that “a photograph would do as well as an oil-painting.”30

On the day after his death, his fellow directors touchingly recalled his many years of service to the Library Association: “This service he rendered for no other compensation than to gratify his love of doing good. The building and the books upon its shelves bear testimony to his unselfish aims, and are a monument to his worth and name.”31 Whitehead, however much or little honored by such tributes, would likely have thought less of them knowing that, soon after his death, the Library Association gave up its building and surrendered its collections to a municipally funded library open to all.

One very cold day late in 1846, after he and Prime had labored in vain to convince some reluctant Newarkers to subscribe for shares, his friend conceived of a memorial perhaps more suited to Whitehead’s temperament. As they discussed some features of the proposed building, including niches for statues, Prime turned and said, “I think, Whitehead, if we stay out much longer we shall be frozen stiff enough to step right into our places, and save them from the expense of having our statues cut.”32

Copyright © 2021 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Written recollections of the conversation on the train, written many years after, are unsurpisingly inconsistent. In a memorial address read before the New Jersey Historical Society the year following Whitehead’s death, his friend Samuel Irenæus Prime ascribed the initial offer for a library–and the above quotation–to an anonymous speaker, one among “several gentlemen, fond of books and interested in the diffusion of useful knowledge.”  “Sketch of the life and character of William A. Whitehead,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 2, 8:4 (1885) (183-202) 193. A manuscript of this address, however, introduces the quotation with the words “One morning I remarked to one of these friends,” suggesting that Prime himself raised the matter: “Sketch of the life and character of William A. Whitehead,” 16, in Prime Family Manuscripts, Box 11, Folder 44, Princeton Theological Seminary Library. The manuscript here has been altered to read “One of them remarked to another…,” which is the version published by Prime’s son: Samuel Irenæus Prime, Autobiography and memorials, ed. Wendell Prime (New York 1888) 242. In Prime’s account the opening exchange did not include Whitehead, for it continues: “We submitted the idea to Mr. Whitehead, who enlarged the scope of the suggestion….”  While Whitehead’s recollection of events, though mentioning that he and Prime were “fellow travelers” to New York, refers to no specific conversation on the train, Whitehead did regard Prime as the prime (so to speak) mover, so that the Newark Library Association “may be said to have originated” with him. “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830” (typed transcript of unpublished memoir) 54. According to Prime, “Mr. Whitehead gave himself to the work and prosecuted it to complete success.” “Sketch” 193; Autobiography and memorials, 243. Whitehead’s brother-in-law Cortlandt Parker later named him “the founder of the Newark Library, without whom, if it ever existed, it would have been postponed for many years,” according a diminished role to Prime: Free Public Library of the City of Newark, N. J., Opening exercises held in the Halsey Street Methodist Episcopal Church, Wednesday evening, Oct. 16, 1889 (Newark 1890) 9-10.

[2] Julia Elizabeth Sabine, Antecedents of the Newark Public Library: a study of books and readers in Newark, 1666-1889 (Ph.D. dissertation. University of Chicago, 1946), esp. 49-61, 85-88, 94-95, 104-114, 119-125. This thesis is the basis for Julia Sabine, “Books and libraries in Newark to 1847,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society 81:4 (October 1953) 254-278.

[3] Opening exercises 8. 

[4] J. G., “Means of improvement in Newark,” Sentinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 21 October 1845 3:1. On Olds’s shop see Sabine, Antecedents 115-116.

[5] A projected public library for Newark was linked in print early on to the Historical Society: A. B., Newark daily advertiser 11 November 1845 2:3 (where the Society is mistakenly called the “Newark Historical Society”); Experiment, Newark daily advertiser 4 June 1846 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 24 September 1846 2:2.

[6] A. B., Newark daily advertiser 11 November 1845 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 12 November 1845 2:3.

[7] Newark daily advertiser 24 September 1846 2:2.

[8] Newark daily advertiser 26 September 1846 2:4.

[9] “Establishment of a Lyceum,” New Jersey eagle (Newark, N.J.) 29 September 1846 2:4-5; “Lyceum meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 5 October 1846 2:3; “Lyceum meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 7 October 1846 2:3.

[10] The remembrances are those of Cortlandt Parker in 1889, at the opening of a new public library on West Park Street: Opening exercises 9.

[11] “Establishment of a Lyceum,” 4.

[12] “Newark city library,” Newark daily advertiser 26 October 1846 2:5-6. A separate printing of this report and plan, with space to list subscribers, is preserved in the Librariana collection of the Newark Public Library.

[13] Newark daily advertiser 17 December 1846 2:1.

[14] “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 29 October 1846 3:1.

[15] “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 3 November 1846 2:3; Newark daily advertiser10 November 1846 3:1.

[16] P., Newark daily advertiser 12 November 1846 2:2; P., “David Rittenhouse,” Newark daily advertiser 13 November 1846 2:4.

[17] “Public library,” Newark daily advertiser 24 November 1846 2:1.

[18] Newark daily advertiser 25 November 1846 2:2; “The library meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 27 November 1846 2:4.

[19] Newark daily advertiser 17 December 1846 2:1; “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 6 January 1848 2:4-5.

[20] Newark daily advertiser 1 December 1846 2:3.

[21] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead” 54.

[22] “Lyceum meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 5 October 1846 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 24 December 1846 2:3; “Library meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 5 January 1847 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 15 June 1847 2:2; “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 6 January 1848 2:4-5; The charter and by-laws of the Newark Library Association (Newark 1848). The act of incorporation was approved 19 February 1847; the last Advertiser article gives the erroneous date of 9 February.

[23] “Buildings at auction,” Newark daily advertiser 29 June 1847 3:1; “Proposals for buildings for Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 27 July 1847 3:1; Newark daily advertiser 9 August 1847 2:2; “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 9 August 1847 3:1.

[24] “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 26 June 1847 2:1; “New buildings in Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 6 November 1847 2:5-6; “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 6 January 1848 2:4-5; Hand book and guide for the city of Newark, New Jersey (Newark 1872) 52. The city’s Common Council also met at this location from 1848 to 1854. The address of Library Hall changed to 147-149 Market Street with the renumbering of 1868. This renumbering remains in place today. See Vanduyne & Sherman, Fire insurance map of Newark, N. J. (1868), plate XIX.

[25] Samuel Irenæus Prime, An address delivered at the opening of the hall of the Newark Library Association, Newark, N. J., February 21, 1848 (Newark 1848) 16, 35-36, 37-38; “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 21 February 1848 3:1; “Opening of Newark Library Hall,” Newark daily advertiser 22 February 1848 2:1-2.

[26] “Library Hall lectures,” Newark daily advertiser 24 February 1848 2:2; “Meeting on the death of Mr. Adams,” Newark daily advertiser 26 February 1848 2:2; Newark daily advertiser 26 February 1848 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 28 February 1848 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 29 February 1848 2:2; Newark daily advertiser 1 March 1848 2:3.

[27] Newark daily advertiser 15 April 1848 3:2; Newark daily advertiser 17 April 1848 2:3.

[28] G. P., “How to pass an evening,” Newark daily advertiser 9 October 1849 2:5.

[29] “Newark Library anniversary,” Newark daily advertiser 8 January 1857 2:2-3.

[30] “Newark Library Association,” Newark daily advertiser 7 January 1858 2:3; Newark daily advertiser 7 July 1858 2:4; Frederick W. Ricord, Diary, entries of 22 and 23 April 1858, in Manuscript Group NWK Biography, Box 3, Newark Public Library. The Whitehead painting, by Henry Peters Gray, is now in the New Jersey Historical Society collections, numbered UC2523. It hung with portraits of others of the library’s progenitors, including Prime and William Rankin, the first president, according to Hand book and guide for the city of Newark, New Jersey 52-53.

[32] “Childhood and youth” 54. There’s a hint of pride in the remark that concludes this part of Whitehead’s memoir: “if any institution in Newark has fulfilled the purposes of its creation it is the Library Association.” But the comment also suggests frustration with other institutions to which he had been fervently committed.


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