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Libraries & the Cultural Record 42.4 (2007) 452-455

Cultural Record Keepers
The New York Mercantile Library and Its Home Delivery Service
Larry T. Nix
Consulting librarian and library history buff

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Image courtesy of Clifford J. Alexander.

In 1866 the Board of Direction of the Mercantile Library Association of New York (hereafter referred to as the Mercantile Library) instituted a service in which books were delivered to the residences of their members.1 That decision initiated what may have been the first such service by any library in America and perhaps in the world.2 Shown above is a copy of a Mercantile Library delivery check, circa 1871, with a five-cent stamp affixed, depicting one format in which the five-cent yellow-and-black delivery stamp was sold. Members would purchase a check and then detach the left portion and place it on a book order form, which they would deposit in postal collection boxes within New York City.

Mercantile libraries were one of the many types of membership libraries that existed in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century America. They were established and governed by young men who were merchants' clerks. The Mercantile Library in New York was established in 1820 and was the second mercantile library established in this country. By the 1860s it was one of the largest and busiest libraries in the nation. With the exception of the fact that participants were [End Page 452] charged fees, mercantile libraries operated much like modern public libraries. In particular, the Mercantile Library in New York was as aggressive in its marketing and service orientation as any "give them what they want" public library of the twenty-first century. The initiation of a home delivery service by the Mercantile Library supports the argument made by Thomas Augst that it was one of the most successful libraries in nineteenth-century America because of the businesslike approach taken by the young men who governed the library.3

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Figure 1
The New York Mercantile Library advertised its services on the reverse side of this book order form for home delivery, dated 1875. Courtesy John D. Bowman.

The establishment of the home delivery service was a business decision based on both economics and service to the members of the Mercantile Library. It came about as the result of the failure of the branch of the library known as the Uptown Office to perform up to expectations in 1865. To deal with this problem the board sold the lease on the building occupied by Uptown Office, located at 26th Street and Broadway, for a profit and established a smaller and cheaper service point on 34th Street, where books were delivered from the main library for pickup by members. The home delivery service was instituted to supplement the new location.4

In the beginning the library established collection boxes to pick up book orders for home delivery at fourteen locations above 23rd Street. Books were delivered to the residences of members by horse and wagon. The payment of the fee for home delivery was made by the purchase [End Page 453] of delivery stamps similar to postage stamps. The stamps were affixed to a book order form and placed in a collection box. The initial cost of the stamps was probably six cents each, but this was quickly changed to five cents. A limited number of the delivery stamps are known to exist today in various five-cent, six-cent, and ten-cent versions.5

Fiscal year 1867 was a very successful one for the Mercantile Library, which had an increase in membership of over 24 percent. This was attributed in part to "the facility with which books are delivered at the residences of members." In the first full year of the service an estimated three thousand books were delivered by the system, and $437 in stamps were sold.6

In fiscal year 1870, instead of using its own collection boxes to collect members' orders, the Mercantile...