The Astor Library

Thomas Bodley— who, toward the close of his life, founded the great library which bears his name once remarked concerning the renowned city of colleges, that it had everything but an adequate library. With some modifications, this observation might have been considered applicable to this metropolis the city of Mr. Astor's adoption when he founded the library that bears his name.


John Jacob Astor was born at Waldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, in the year 1763. When only sixteen, he left his father's farm, setting out, on foot, for the Rhine ; and when resting under a tree, he is said to have made these three resolves — "to be honest, industrious, and never gamble"; and it is added that he adhered to them throughout his long life. He went to his elder brother, at London, and engaged with him in business some three years, after which he came to New York. This was in 1783; subsequently, he embarked in the fur trade, which he prosecuted with such energy and success that in ten year's his establishment at the mouth of the Columbia River, known as Astoria, had its agencies in England, Germany, France, and indeed in all parts of the civilized world. At the beginning of the present century, he shrewdly invested in the real estate of the then young city of New -York to such an extent that his property continued to augment so largely as to constitute him the most opulent merchant in the United States, if not in America.

A Brief Description

Although the Astor Library may not claim precedence over other public libraries of New -York city in the order of time, yet in respect of its distinctive character as a cosmopolitan library of reference for scholars, its claim to priority will not be disputed As to the origin
of the institution, it may suffice to cite the words of its first librarian, Dr. Joseph Green Cogswell, which are the following: "For the existence of this library, the community are indebted to the generosity of the late John Jacob Astor. It was a kind impulse of his own heart which prompted him to do this noble act. He wished, as he said, by some permanent and valuable memorial to testify his grateful feelings towards the city in which he had so long lived and prospered. When he consulted with his friends as to the object to which his intended liberality should be applied, the plan of founding a public library was most approved, and his decision was promptly taken in favor of it. Nor was it owing to any misgiving or wavering in opinion that the accomplishment of the purpose was not effected in his lifetime." In a subsequent letter, Dr. Cogswell wrote, under date of July 20, 1838, the following: "Early in January, Mr. Astor consulted me about an appropriation of some three or four hundred thousand dollars, which he intended to leave for public purposes, and I urged him to give it for a library, which I finally brought him to agree to do ; and I have been at work ever since settling all the points which have arisen in the progress of the affair." Washington Irving and Fitz-Greene Halleck
cordially indorsed the proposition of the establishment of a public library; and yet the matter was kept in abeyance until March, 1842, when Dr. Cogswell received the appointment of librarian, and measures were put into operation for the erection of the library building. Meanwhile, Dr. Cogswell commenced the (to him) congenial service of book-hunting at home and abroad, an office for which his eminent bibliographical and critical scholarship so signally qualified him. The  board of trustees therefore authorized him to visit the literary centers of the Old World, for the purpose of obtaining the rare foundation works in the several departments of learning adapted to the higher order of study in all branches of art, science, and literature. It so happened that he was singularly opportune in his earlier visits to the great book-marts of Europe. In its several capitals — London, Paris, Leipzig, Borne, Stockholm, and elsewhere — his purchases were a great success; and at the auction sale of the celebrated library of the Duke of Buckingham he secured many very rare and choice works of art and of renown. It having been the design to form a library that should be adequate to meet the demands of advanced students, the selection of its books has been governed by that fact.

In a republic of such free political institutions as ours, intellectual culture is a necessity, since it affords a guaranty of our national greatness, if not, indeed, of our national existence. The leading capitals of the Old World have long since proved the vast importance of such beneficent institutions; and it may justly be deemed a matter of gratulation and national honor that the metropolitan city of the New World should thus emulate their example. Yet, not in New -York only is this the case; the like liberal endowments have since become conspicuous in the principal cities of the United States. Thus, our public libraries may be said to unite with our colleges and schools, harmoniously combining their aid for the universal elevation of the people the one supplementing the other. As pioneer in this important work, the Astor Library may thus prove to America what the library of the British Museum has so long been to Great Britain "The Scholars' Court of Appeals." Differing from the popular circulating libraries, the Astor is a consulting or reference library, its books being freely accessible to all visitors. It is a literary laboratory, where are engendered those mental forces that propel the industrial achievements of the age ; where may be seen many an earnest worker who, with calm, inquiring looks, Has culled the ore of wisdom from his books Cleared it, sublimed it, till it flowed refined From his alembic crucible of mind.

Thus public libraries present many claims upon our grateful regard, since they not only educate and elevate society, but also conserve and perpetuate the intellectual treasures of past ages. It has been well said that "moral and intellectual light is all-pervading: it cannot be diffused among one class of society without its influence being felt by the whole community."

But to resume the sketch of the library. On the death of Mr. Astor, in March, 1848, and by virtue of his will, the munificent sum, at that time, of four hundred thousand dollars, for the founding of a public library in New -York, was conveyed to a board of trustees selected by the testator. An act of incorporation was granted by the State legislature on the following January, and active operations were commenced for the carrying out of the requisitions of the founder. On the 9th of January, 1854, the Astor Library building, with its eighty thousand volumes, comprising an assemblage of costly works of art, and the accepted authorities in the several departments of human lore, was formally opened to public inspection. The novelty of its grand display of the great national art-productions of Europe, — such as the stately volumes of the Musee Francais and Raphael's Vatican, — together with the prestige of the founder, naturally gave eclat to the occasion. The exhibition was continued several successive days, and afterward the institution was rendered available for students.

During the early years of its history, the library was honored by the visits of many distinguished personages, among them His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, with his suite, to whom a private reception was tendered by the Astor family and Dr. Cogswell with his aids. Afterward came another notable visitor, Prince Napoleon, who was said to bear such close resemblance to the great Emperor. Then, some years later, came the Japanese commissioners, who, when shown some of the portraits, in books, of their historic men, greatly marveled. After their visit the Chinese ambassadors came in great state, arrayed in their courtly costumes; their deportment was so indicative of culture and refinement that it occasioned general remark. The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, was the next distinguished visitor ; he seemed much interested in the important features of the library and in popular education.

Among the host of literary characters who have at various times visited the institution, it must suffice simply to mention the names of the more distinguished: Washington Irving (who was a frequent visitor), George Bancroft, Edward Everett, Fitz-Greene Halleck, S. F. B. Morse, G. P. R. James, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Emerson, Saxe, Willis, Holmes, Motley, Hawthorne, Cobden, Sparks, Gould, Greeley, and Dean Stanley. Lovers of learning, and men eminent in the various departments of art, science, and literature, have always been cordial in their commendation of the library. From a great number of such testimonials, one only is cited, as indicative of the others. Charles Sumner wrote on one occasion to his friend Theodore Parker: "I range daily in the alcoves of the Astor: more charming than the gardens of Boccaccio, and each hour a Decameron." The Astor Library soon became widely known abroad, as an evidence of which, numerous donations of important works have been made from time to time by the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, China, and Japan; as well as by the Czar of Russia, the King of Italy, the Duke of Northumberland, and many other distinguished personages.

The year 1859 was memorable in the annals of the library, on account of the lamented death of Washington Irving, its first and honored president. In this sad event, the institution, in common with the world of letters, suffered severe loss. Among the numerous loving tributes to his memory, Tuckerman has voiced for us one of the best: "No one ever lived a more beautiful life; no one ever left less to regret in life; no one ever carried with him to the grave a more universal affection, respect, and sorrow."1 In September, 1859, William B. Astor, eldest son of the founder of the library, presented to the trustees the second library building, with the ground upon which it stands. This second hall, of the same dimensions and style as the first, afforded the required facilities for the increasing accessions to the library. Upon the decease of Mr. Irving, William B. Astor was elected president of the board of trustees, which office he filled till his death. During his life he extended to the institution his fostering care, liberally augmenting its financial resources, having by special gifts and bequests enriched its treasury to the extent of five hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The library lost a generous patron in his death.

In the year 1864 Dr. Cogswell completed his first catalogue of the library, which then comprised about one hundred thousand volumes. This Herculean and self-imposed work which, however, to him was a labor of love he achieved while superintending the daily administration of the library. A lasting debt of gratitude is due to this devoted service from students who consult the library; since without the assistance of such a key to unlock its treasures, they would prove, to a great extent, unavailable. The board of trustees readily recognized this fact, and acknowledged the doctor's essential service by their recorded vote of thanks. Not long after the completion of this catalogue, forming four large octavo volumes, and a supplementary volume, bringing the record down to the year 1866, and including a subject-index, Dr. Cogswell tendered his resignation as superintendent, and soon after resigned his membership in the board of trustees.

His impaired health and prolonged service demanded this action, yet his interest in the institution which had ever claimed his devoted labor during twenty years still remained with him; he was its genius loci. He retired to his home at Cambridge, Mass., honored alike for his eminent scholarship, refined courtesy, and untiring self-devotion to the interests of the library.

Few men of letters could have evinced more of the suaviter in mofio amid the varied conditions incident to the arduous duties of his profession, than Dr. Cogswell, and none could have surpassed him in his unremitting labors in the formation and the interests of the institution he served so long and so well. After his retirement from his official connection with the library, the board elected as superintendent Francis Schroeder, ex-minister to Sweden, who resigned in 1870 ; E. E. Straznicky then became the incumbent until 1875, when the trustees installed one of their number, James Carson Brevoort, who continued in office until 1878, when the present incumbent, Bobbins Little, was installed. In the year 1877 Alexander Hamilton was elected president of the trustees, and this office he held until his death. The gentlemen who now compose the board of trustees are the mayor of the city of New York, ex officio; Hon. Hamilton Fish; Dr. Thomas M. Markoe, President; Professor Henry Drisler, Secretary: John Lambert Cadwalader; Right Rev. Henry Codman Potter; Stephen Van Eensselaer Cruger; Bobbins Little, Superintendent ;Stephen Henry Olin ; Edward King, Treasurer ; and Charles Howland Russell.

In October, 1881, the late John Jacob Astor, the grandson of the founder, erected a third building adjoining the other two, of corresponding style and dimensions, which, with the ground, he presented to the trustees. The entire structure now has a frontage of about two hundred feet, with a depth of one hundred feet. It is built of brownstone and brick, and is in the Byzantine order of architecture. The main floor of the library, which is twenty feet above the street level, is reached by marble steps from the vestibule, or main entrance. This entrance-hall is richly frescoed and paneled ; around it are twenty-four classic busts of heroes and poets in Italian marble, by a Florentine artist, from antiques. These busts, with the colored-marble pedestals upon which they are placed, were presented to the library by Mrs. Franklin Delano, of this city, a sister of the late John Jacob Astor.

At the delivery desk, at which readers apply for books, are the printed slips upon which the title of the book desired is written, together with the name and address of the applicant. In close proximity are the two printed catalogues, which now form eight large volumes. These bring the record of the collections down to the close of 1880, and are supplemented by the card catalogue, which includes all accessions after that date. The second printed catalogue, which connects with. Dr. Cogswell's, costing about forty thousand dollars, was the gift of the late John Jacob Astor, whose combined gifts and bequests exceeded eight hundred thousand dollars. In the central hall, westward, are glass show-cases of rare manuscripts and brilliant missals one manuscript in golden letters on purple vellum is over twelve hundred years old; there are also rare specimens of early typography, and many choice literary relics, in all estimated to be worth about $100,000. The central as well as the south and north halls, which are connected by arched passages, are uniformly" walled around with alcoves devoted to some specific classification of subject. The same arrangement is continued in the galleries of the three halls. The north hall is devoted to histories of all nations, and the south hall to all branches of science and art. The middle or central hall, at the west end, is devoted to the patents of all nations the British patents alone forming some five thousand volumes. The entire capacity of the library, thus enlarged, would now afford space for half a million of volumes, which is at present about double the extent of its accumulations, exclusive of about twelve thousand pamphlets. The whole number of volumes on the first of January, 1893, was 245,349. The library may be said to be especially rich in some departments, such as the fine arts, architecture, archaeology, Orientalia, history, the classics, French literature, scientific serials, and mathematics, political economy, and bibliography. It has also a very extensive collection of the transactions of the scientific and literary societies of Europe and America.

t would be impossible, within the restricted limits of this sketch, to present even an epitome of the numerous noteworthy productions that grace the alcoves of the library. With its advancing growth will inevitably come the evidences of its ever increasing utility and appreciation. Like our Colossus of Liberty, with uplifted torch guiding the toilers of the seas to the shelter of our hospitable shores : so this monumental library, as an intellectual lighthouse, attracts literary toilers to its ever accessible treasury of mental wealth. In the halls of the library are marble busts of its founder, of Washington Irving, its first president, and of Dr. Cogswell, its first superintendent; also life-size portraits of William B. Astor, Alexander Hamilton (the late president), Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Daniel Lord, its first treasurer. Subsequent to the death of the late John Jacob Astor, the library became enriched by the gift of his rare collection of paintings costing originally seventy-five thousand dollars presented by his son, William Waldorf Astor. These beautiful art-productions, by eminent foreign artists, are freely accessible to visitors on Wednesdays, during library hours, from nine A. M. until five p. M., except during the three winter months, when the hours are from nine A.M. until four p. m. The administration of the library is under the direction of the board of trustees, the several departments of its routine service being assigned to the superintendent and four librarians with their numerous assistants.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Astor Library
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Memorial History of the City of New York From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892 Edited by James Grant Wilson Volume IV; New York History Company 1893
Time & Date Stamp: