Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library Is Home To A Special Collection of Books, Art and Furniture

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April 21, 2015 by bbutler1969

Not far from downtown Cincinnati’s iconic Fountain Square, you’ll find one of the last remaining mercantile libraries in the country.

Mercantile LibraryOn April 18, 1835, 45 merchants and clerks in Cincinnati created the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association. Pooling their funds, they subscribed to newspapers and periodicals, established a book collection, and furnished a special gathering place in which to read and talk about those items after a long day at work. Today, it is known as the Mercantile Library Association of Cincinnati.

The library has called the 11th floor of 414 Walnut Street home since 1908. Alphonso Taft, an attorney who was the father of President William Howard Taft, wrote a lease that gave the library a 10,000-year occupancy with rent of $1.00 per year.

After using the Mercantile Library as guests, women first became nonvoting honorary members of the library in 1859. The first African-American member joined in 1872. Today, annual membership dues start at $55, and include borrowing privileges, use of the reading room and other benefits.

Silence, Mercantile LibraryThe Mercantile Library’s collection includes more than 200,000 volumes, as well as paintings, sculptures and special objects like rare specimens of minerals. Examples include Hamlet and Ophelia, a painting by Ohio artist Lily Martin Spencer; a marble bust of George Washington by sculptor Hiram Powers, who worked in Cincinnati for a time; and a plaster copy of the marble bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that stands in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. Silence, a marble statue of a woman standing with her index finger in front of her lips, stands in the library’s entrance hall.

The reading room is furnished with original pieces, including iron and mahogany book and magazine stands, slant-topped desks, and a floor safe that houses the library’s board minutes.Mercantile Library

Since the building was built before the invention of the light bulb, glass floors in the steel-frame stacks allow light to filter through.

Glass-floored stacks, Mercantile Library

The Mercantile Library offers events of interest to anyone who enjoys books and reading. Since the 1840s, the library has hosted informative educational lectures given by distinguished speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Makepeace Thackeray, Herman Melville, Bret Harte, John Galsworthy, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Julia Child and William Howard Taft.

Rookwood pottery vases, a Stickley writing desk and bookcases filled with enticing volumes furnish the library’s 12th-floor lecture room, which affords a magnificent view of the Ohio River. Bordering the ceiling of the room are 23 names of people who have lectured at the library.Mercantile Library

Some of those same names adorn a bow tie especially designed for the library by BowTie Cause, a project of former Cincinnati Bengals player Dhani Jones. The library receives $10 of the $57 purchase price that recalls Jones’ football jersey number.

Mercantile Library bow tieMany library events are scheduled at noon for the convenience of members and visitors who work downtown. Currently, these include discussion groups focusing on early 20th-century mystery novels, Shakespeare’s dramatic works, poetry and Scandinavian books.

To discover more about the history of the Mercantile Library Association of Cincinnati, read At the Center: 175 Years at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, by Robert C. Vitz; Brilliance and Balderdash: Early Lectures at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, by Dale Patrick Brown; and “The Cincinnati Mercantile Library as a Business-Communications Center, 1835-1846,” by S.H. Barringer and B.W. Scharlott, from the Spring 1991 issue of Libraries & Culture, pages 388-401. Thomas Augst includes mercantile libraries in The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America.


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