This Friday, March 9, several of our Networked New York presenters will talk about spaces in the city around which literary communities and cultural “scenes” have emerged, from bookstores to Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar to urban blogs. In my take on the conference theme, I’d like to think about the operation of a similarly influential space – New York’s first free-standing reading room.
When we think of a reading room today, we might imagine the quiet, sanitized reading rooms of academic libraries. But for its earliest developers in the United States, the reading room, as much as a place to read or to retreat, was a place to interact socially and engage politically. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, advertisements for reading rooms emphasized the access they afforded to a variety of publications in addition to the opportunity to consume those publications in a shared space. These descriptions list collection materials alongside details of comfortable furnishings and promises of refreshment, suggesting that early American reading rooms, more so than their modern counterparts, were valued as establishments of sociability.
In October, 1797, Arondt Van Hook, a tannery owner and former jailor, opened on 149 Water Street what contemporaries called the first “Reading Room in America.” From eight in the morning until ten in the evening, the reading room provided visitors a selection of periodical and other texts as well as coffee and biscuits. The room itself, “pleasing and comfortable,” as one editor puts it, invited customers to settle in and immerse themselves in the available literature. Payment terms were designed for lounging readers instead of potential book buyers; subscriptions, made by the quarter, month, week, or day, permitted use in the room of any of the books with which it was furnished. For four cents, even the most casual reader might enjoy a sitting.
This affordable reading arrangement appealed to professionals and tradesmen as well as low-wage earners and travelers passing through the city. In his advertised business prospectus, Van Hook emphasizes that his reading room will cater to a wide range of people and interests: “This collection shall consist of Magazines, Reviews, Annual Registers, Handbills, Newspapers, Prices Current in the different States, and Pamphlets of every description, gathered with impartial profusion.” And, in the case two guests decide simultaneously on the same work, Van Hook promises, “there will be such provision made of every new article, that several gentlemen may be supplied at once, with the same production.”
Although hundreds of public libraries had been built throughout the previous century, most of them operated informally out of schools, churches, and printing offices and did not include areas where patrons could read the books they contained. Van Hook, on the other hand, gave visitors access to the material in his collection only for as long as they remained in his reading room. Not quite a library and not quite a bookstore, Van Hook’s new establishment was, more than anything, a common space for members of a community to practice reading. The reading room attracted visitors of a range of class and status and then compelled those diverse visitors to congregate within its walls. The dynamic atmosphere and close quarters invited readers to observe and read alongside one another as well as to engage in discussion concerning the most relevant texts of the day. Reading at Van Hook’s was a collective, rather than private, activity, generating what we might think of as an early social reading “scene” in Manhattan.
Van Hook’s new business was a sensation. An early reviewer declares, “We are happy to inform the public, that Mr. Van Hook’s plan of establishing a READING ROOM in this city, meets with merited success.” Another asks, “Where can a winter’s evening be more usefully or agreeably spent than in the Reading Room, where a delicious repast is prepared for the amateurs of literature?” Within a month of Van Hook’s opening, plans for other reading rooms began to circulate. One paper reveals that “Proposals are issued at Baltimore for a Reading Room, nearly upon the same plan with that designed by Mr. Van Hook in this city.” In New York, a group of “genteel Ladies,” frustrated by their exclusion to Van Hook’s, announced their desire to have “a similar institution for the instruction” of women.
Although Van Hook died of yellow fever in September, 1798, organized spaces for communal reading continued for years to be created according to his model. Of his successors in New York, a Frenchman, Hocquet de Caritat, became one of the most well-known. Hoping to produce through his room a community of intellectual and literary men, Caritat warns in his published solicitation that “it is not sufficient for gentlemen to give their subscriptions: their personal attention is also requisite.” According to Caritat’s vision of the reading room, in the evenings, “when the hurry of business is over, the subscribers will frequent the room for the purpose rather of exchanging ideas by conversation, than of seeking entertainment or instruction in the perusal of books.”
About the images: “In the Reading-Room” was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1890, with an article, “Old New York Taverns,” which details the development of New York City taverns from Dutch houses of entertainment in New Amsterdam to the Tontine Association’s establishment of City Hotel in 1792. “The Reading-Room of the Fifth Avenue Hotel” is from an 1871 issue of Every Saturday. Although this image appeared more than 70 years after the creation of Van Hook’s reading room, it suggests the diversity of patrons, the communal atmosphere, and the spectatorial practices of reading typical of early national reading room establishments.