Comparing 18th-Century Subscription Libraries in Philadelphia

Dana Dorman, Archivist, Library Company Papers Project

Photograph of bookpates from Association Library, Amicable Library, and Union Library Company

Image: Bookplates of the Amicable Library, the Association Library, and the Union Library Company (1769).

The earliest records of the Library Company of Philadelphia include remnants from several other subscription libraries that eventually merged into the Library Company: the Amicable Library Company, the Association Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Union Library Company.

The Union Library Company was founded just fifteen years after the Library Company, in 1746. At least four shareholders of the Library Company – Francis Alison, Evan Morgan, Samuel Morris, and Philip Syng – apparently hedged their bets and joined the new Union Library Company while also continuing their shares at the Library Company.[1]

The organizers of the Union Library Company intended to allow up to 100 shareholders, though only 39 were listed as of June 1, 1754 when it published its catalog of holdings. The library clerk was to make the books available every seventh evening for two hours, but also “let any Member of this Library have free Recourse to the Library Room, and to the Books and Effects of the Company, by delivering him the Key or Keys.”[2]

The Union Library Company was based for a time on Chestnut Street, “next door to Thomas Stretch’s,” but later moved to a new location on Third Street. By 1767, space was getting tight enough that members were asked to consider “raising or enlarging” the building.[3]

Photograph of Union Library Company share certificate from 1768

Image: Joseph Warner share certificate for the Union Library Company (March 24, 1768).

But the Union Library Company wasn’t the only competitor for the Library Company of Philadelphia.

In 1757, two more subscription libraries opened in the city. The Association Library Company of Philadelphia was founded on February 2, and the Amicable Library Company was founded just a few days later on February 8, 1757.

Photograph of 1764 receipt from Association Library

Image: Stephen Collins receipt from the Association Library (May 5, 1764).

Both of these institutions followed similar models, with the Amicable Library even offering the same evening hours as the Union Library Company at least for a time.

When the Association Library published a catalog of its holdings in 1765, it listed 570 titles and 107 signers to its articles of association. According to an April 4, 1767 notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the library was located on Chestnut Street.

If the Amicable Library created a catalog of its holdings, I have not yet found a copy. But the Library Company has two manuscript copies of its articles of association; one of those copies is bound at the end of our first volume of Library Company directors’ minutes.

Photograph of the first page of the articles of the Amicable Library

Image: Articles of the Amicable Library Company (1757).

However, none of these other libraries would survive until 1770.

Despite all this apparent interest in books, the prosperous white merchants, artisans, attorneys, and others who were subscribing to these Philadelphia institutions were facing increasing economic pressures by the 1760s. You may recall, for example, that the British enacted the dreaded Stamp Act on the colonies in 1765.

By April 1766, the Amicable Library announced that it was considering whether to “unite with another Library Company,” which may have been the Union Library Company based on the books in our collection that contain bookplates from both. That same month, the Union Library Company announced that it was considering whether to reduce the cost of subscribing. Eighteen months later, the Library Company’s directors unanimously decided to reduce the price of its shares.[4]

In December 1768, the Association Library announced that a “Union between them and the Union Library Company may be of public Utility.” Almost immediately, the Union Library Company approached the Library Company to propose its own merger. In February 1769, directors of the Union Library Company attended a meeting of the Library Company’s directors to discuss the terms under which they would transfer their library’s assets to the Library Company.[5]

The eventual merger of the newly consolidated Union Library Company added 276 more shareholders to the Library Company on April 6, 1769, including our first two women shareholders. Susanna Carmalt received Library Company share #154, and Sarah Emlen received share #212. (Since the Union Library shareholders were added to the Library Company’s rolls in alphabetical order, Carmalt is listed earlier than Emlen, but both acquired their shares on the same day.)

The Union Library Company’s money, books, and library building on Third Street also transferred to the Library Company.

Librarian Ludovic Sprogle was put in charge of the Library Company’s existing collection, then housed on the second floor of the State House (now Independence Hall), while librarian John De Mauregnault was responsible for the items at “the House on Third Street.”[6]

Duplicate titles were sold, but you can still find items with bookplates from the preceding institutions on our shelves.

The Library Company soon moved all of the consolidated books into its rooms at the State House, published a new catalog of its unified holdings in 1770, and rented out the former Union Library Company building for extra income.[7]

Thanks to the merged assets from these other libraries, the Library Company had more resources than ever before, and a more pressing need for additional space.

Stay tuned for a future blog post about how the Library Company addressed that space issue, and how we also came to operate one additional 18th-century library: the Loganian Library.


[1] Dorothy Fear Grimm, “A History of the Library Company of Philadelphia 1731-1835” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1955), 105. E. V. Lamberton, “Colonial Libraries of Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 42, no. 3 (1918): 193-234.

[2] The catalog includes the articles of the Union Library Company and the names of members as of June 1, 1754. See A Catalogue of Books Belonging to the Union-Library-Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1754).

[3] See the Union Library Company notices in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 13, 1756; May 6, 1762; and April 23, 1767.

[4] The Amicable Library’s announcement appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on April 10, 1766. The Union Library Company’s announcement appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on April 3, 1766. The Library Company directors’ notes about share prices are found in the directors’ minutes from January 11, 1768.

[5] The Association Library’s announcement appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on December 26, 1768. The meeting with the Union Library Company directors is detailed in the Library Company’s Directors Minutes for February 11, 1769.

[6] Director’s Minutes, May 2, 1769, Library Company of Philadelphia Records.

[7] Grimm, 148.

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