If you’re looking for books, prints, periodicals, photos or ephemera from Colonial America through the 19th century, this is the place to go!

Like so many things in our city, the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) was a Ben Franklin creation.

He started the Junto, a self-improvement club that debated morals, politics and natural philosophy. When members realized they needed printed matter to prove their points, Franklin and the Junto began the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first subscription library in the U.S.

A typically pragmatic Franklin solution, LCP allowed members to pool their resources to buy books from London, something they could not afford on their own.

Fifty subscribers agreed in 1731 to put up 40 shillings to maintain a shareholder’s library, plus 10 shillings a year after that. You can still buy a share today for $200.

Franklin called LCP “the Mother of all American Subscription Libraries,” and until the Civil War, it was the largest public library in the U.S. Non-members could borrow books, too, with collateral.

Dr. Richard S. Newman, Director of LCP, says unlike European libraries that served scholars and noblemen, its members were artisans. So most early LCP purchases were useful books written in English, not Latin or Greek.

 INTERESTING ODDITIES:

Valuable Trash: One of the library’s real treasures, “The South East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia,” was found by a member of Parliament “in the rubbish of a London curiosity shop” about 1867. He gave it to George Mifflin Dallas, then a U.S. minister at the Court of St. James, who sent “the antique daub” back to Philadelphia as a curiosity. This circa 1720 oil painting by Peter Cooper is now the oldest surviving canvas of any American city and among the most valuable of all Philadelphia paintings.

Book Theft: Shortly before the Cooper painting arrived, the Library Company began experiencing some loss. Then books belonging to the library were discovered at an auction “with the labels partially erased or concealed.” The thief was William Linn Brown, the son of a noted author. He was immediately banned from the library.

First Public Art in Philadelphia: A statue of Ben Franklin first placed outside the Library at 5th Street was eventually moved to LCP’s current location. Over time, part of the statue was damaged. What you don’t see now in his right hand is a scepter, pointing downward to indicate Franklin’s opposition to the monarchy.

Some Top Holdings: 

  • The Magna Carta – Franklin’s personal copy in Latin, an edition printed in London in 1556 – the gold standard of liberty documents.
  • An edition of Euclid in Arabic, published in Rome in 1594, formerly owned by James Logan – with his handwritten notes in Arabic.  
  • A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 ­by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen – likely the first copyrighted piece by African Americans in the U.S. 

Pioneering Collections

1969 – Negro History: 1553-1903. Now called the Program in African American History, this collection has attracted more scholars from greater distances than any other at LCP.

1974 – Women, 1500 to 1900. This is one of the library’s most active areas of collecting.

Exhibitions:

As part of its outreach, LCP produces two exhibitions a year. The latest, Fashioning Philadelphia, runs till March 4, 2016. Some 37 others are online. 

FAST FACTS

Name: The Library Company of Philadelphia

Address: 1314 Locust St., Phila., PA 19107

Year Founded: 1731 by Ben Franklin

What’s Inside: An extensive, non-circulating collection of 500,000 rare books, 160,000 manuscripts, and 75,000 graphics, including broadsides, ephemera, prints, photos and works of art on American history and culture from the 17th – 19th centuries.

Nine: Number of signers of the Declaration of Independence who were Library members. For many years, LCP was the de facto Library of Congress.

Admission: Free

Hours: Reading Room and Gallery: 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m., Weekdays; Print Room: By Appointment Only

Number of Visiting Scholars: 900, many who stay next door at 1320 Locust St., LCP’s Fellowship Residence in the former Cassatt House.

Phone: (215) 546-3181

Website: www.librarycompany.org

Renovation alert: check the website. Library material may be inaccessible from Nov. 23, 2015 to Jan. 8, 2016.

This article appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of the Society Hill Reporter, and has been reprinted with permission.

Posted by Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy, a freelance direct response copywriter, has run his own marketing consulting business since 2004. He’s also a certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.