New York City has a rich history of developing a library system, starting with a variety of private charitable ones, several of which became the basis for the New York Public Library, the largest municipal library in the world. Some of those private libraries remained private, and some even still exist today, while others went on to different uses, like the former Astor Library (now the Public Theater) or the former Jackson Square Library, now a private home and offices (after serving as a church for a while).
One thing many of these libraries have in common is their roots in Greenwich Village, NoHo, and the East Village, which since the mid-19th century have been the cultural center of the city. No exception to that rule is the little-known chapter in New York’s library history that involved creating the city’s — and possibly the world’s — first women’s library. Started in 1860, it was set up to serve working-class women and was originally located in the University Building (since demolished) of New York University, which used to be located on the eastern side of Washington Square Park.
The concrete movement towards such an institution began on October 26, 1858 with speeches given by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and James T. Brady at the Fourth Universalist Society Church at 548 Broadway (Prince/Spring Streets — since demolished), though women had been advocating for such a thing since the 1820s. Due to the controversy of the idea of a library for women, it would take two more years for the concept to become a reality, and was the source of much debate.
During the 19th century, middle-class women were encouraged toward a domestic life, and their educations were typically geared in such a direction. But for working-class and poor women, the stay-at-home model was not an option. This group expanded exponentially during the mid- and late-19th century with the waves of immigration to this country. With the parallel growth of industrialization, there were many opportunities for these women, albeit primarily within certain specific industries such as publishing, communications, manufacturing, and textiles.
Some New York philanthropists were concerned about the plight of working-class women, who frequently earned meager wages, and were often at the mercy of unscrupulous supervisors. During the 1860s, the Working Women’s Protective Union was formed providing legal protection for these women. However, civic leaders were also concerned with these women’s intellectual development. As early as 1820, the Apprentices Library was established for enrichment for working-class men, but as of the mid-19th century, such an institution was not available to the same class of women. While there were libraries in New York City open to women, the cost for joining or accessing them typically put them out of reach for working-class women, and in fact, sometimes the charges were higher for women than for men. There were some employers that provided small libraries to their women workers, but what was needed was a free publicly-accessible library for these women. Women were seen by men as a possible distraction to serious study, and it was also considered morally unsuitable by society for men and women to comingle. Although women technically had access to some of the libraries of the day, the available hours were limited by closure at dusk, thus eliminating the possibility of the working women taking advantage of this resource.
Following the speeches given by Beecher and Brady in 1858 calling on the attendees to establish such an institution, there was much discussion within the press regarding this concept. Opponents felt that it would be of little use to these women, and what they actually needed was more and/or better employment. Advocates felt that such an institution would in fact lead to further avenues of employment, by providing the opportunity of education via access to books, lectures and classes.
On August 25, 1860, The New York Times reported that New York City issued a charter for a Woman’s Library that would be established at the University Building, with nearly 4,000 volumes already procured. The Times went onto say:
It must be remembered that women are shut out from many sources of amusement and
recreation which are open to men. They have no clubs, no lodges, no games, no freedom
of frequenting theaters, concerts or public meetings—no means of enjoying their evenings or other leisure hours, but such as the resources of the small circle in which they live may bring within their reach. Books are for them far more of a necessity than for men—and it is certainly surprising that while half-a-dozen large, well-supported public libraries should exist for the latter, not one should have been provided or projected for the former until now.
One of the patrons and board members of the new library was Benjamin H. Field, who lived at 86 University Place (still extant) and donated $2,000 to the cause. Field would go onto be one of the founders in 1880 of the New York Free Circulating Library, New York’s first free circulating branch library system upon which the New York Public Library is based (and which in 1902 absorbed the NYFCL), and later its president.
Other board members and/or supporters of the Women’s Library included prominent New Yorkers like H.J. Raymond (founder of The New York Times), Peter Cooper, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and James T. Brady.
The library’s reading rooms opened on September 26, 1860, but the circulation of its books did not begin until its official opening on October 1, 1860. There was an annual subscription cost of $1.50 according to its Catalogue of Books in the Woman’s Library of New York, which detailed the rules and regulations of the library. The library received positive attention in some of the press, noting its popularity and use by the women of New York. The new institution even received interest beyond the boundaries of the city when it was visited by the Prince of Wales shortly after its opening; London would not have its own women’s library until years later, and reporting at the time indicated the Women’s Library was believed to be the first and only of its kind at the time.
The library kept its home at the University Building through 1865. Following that, it moved to 80 White Street and then 44 Franklin Street, also the location of the Working Women’s Protective Union. By 1879 the library was under the control of the Working Women’s Protective Union, presumably for financial reasons, and both organizations were located at 88 Bleecker Street (at Mercer Street — since demolished). The library remained there until 1883, its last known address. By the early 20th century, the library was no longer listed by the New York City directories. However, it remains an important part of New York’s library history, as well as women’s history.