The free public library in America was preceded by for-fee libraries that can be described broadly as membership libraries. The first of these was the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends in 1731. In the 1820s a sub-group of membership libraries called mercantile libraries were established by and for merchants and merchants' clerks. The first of these libraries were founded in Boston and New York City in 1820. The third was founded in 1821in Philadelphia, The Mercantile Library Company of Philadelphia started as a subscription library but began issuing stock in 1826 (see stock certificate below). Mercantile libraries quickly broadened their mission and became popular cultural organizations serving the general public for a modest subscription fee. In the case of the Philadelphia Mercantile Library anyone could use the library without charge but had to pay a fee to borrow books. Collections of mercantile libraries were much like future public libraries with multiple copies of popular books and large numbers of magazines, and newspapers. In 1875 the New York Mercantile Library was the fourth largest library in the U.S. and the Philadelphia Mercantile Library the sixth largest. In 1869 the Philadelphia Mercantile Library moved into a spacious building purchased from the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Harper's Weekly for August 14, 1869 included an illustration of the interior of the new facility (see above). An unusual feature of the library in its new location was open stacks, something that was extremely unusual for libraries of that period. With the growth and expansion of free public libraries in the second half of the 19th century and the 20th century, membership libraries including mercantile libraries gradually ceased to exist with a few exceptions. The collection of the Philadelphia Mercantile Library was absorbed into the Free Library of Philadelphia or dispersed to book dealers and others. I have a number of books in my personal library that were formerly in the collection of the Philadelphia Mercantile Library. See more items from my collection related to the library HERE.
Miss “Public Libraries” Mary Eileen Ahern
4 days ago