Until Death Do Us Part: an Ode to Philadelphia Book Collecting

September 6, 2019 | by Mickey Herr


I’ve been pondering the fate of book collecting lately. In recent years we’ve been told to downsize, simplify, and digitize. Shouldn’t we all be reading all our books on our digital devices by now? The popular professional organizer Marie Kondo recommends keeping less than 30 books in your household. Impossible. Because nothing sparks joy like a book. Like me, many of my friends suffer from this passion. We know we will never have enough shelf space. We are perfectly okay with the teetering stacks of books on our bedside table that somehow trail around the baseboards and up over the radiators, down the halls, and into every empty space. I want to hold the book, dog-ear the pages, and highlight favorite passages to be read again and again.

As an avid reader of fiction, I have always found it difficult to let go of a book that took me someplace new, even if I was handing it forward to a good friend. Are we really that good of friends? In recent years, as I have gone deeper into living the life of a writer, my personal collection of books has grown to include Philadelphia history, biographies, spirituality, vintage books, and, well, any topic on which I find myself writing. As I grow as a writer, so does my library. I’ve even taken to reading the books that the people I’m researching read back in their time. If you want to know a person, get to know their personal library.

The Gross Library at the Mütter Museum. | Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

While attending a recent meeting at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I found myself sitting inside the former library of Dr. Samuel Gross. If not for the famous 1875 portrait painted by Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinicand the subsequent bruhaha when Thomas Jefferson University decided they wanted to sell said painting in 2006–the average Philadelphian would likely not recognize Dr. Gross’ name. Additionally, most visitors to the Mütter Museum enter the foyer of the College of Physicians and walk directly past the entrance to Dr. Gross’s library. It’s a hidden, little gem. Endowed by his children, the library was recreated in its original design to house Gross’ vast book collection. As a giant in the surgical world, his library includes his own monumental text, System of Surgery, published in 1859, as well as countless volumes on medical conditions from bone disease, traumatic brain injury, artery anatomy, and even abortion and sterility, just to name a few.

Working as a public historian I am lucky to attend meetings in all sorts of curious locations, often surrounded by books. We live in a city full of books and astounding book collections. Most people know that Ben Franklin and a group of his Junto Club friends founded America’s first subscription library in 1731 when they created the Library Company of Philadelphia. Franklin wanted tradespeople to have resources, and he believed in an educated electorate. Access to books was key. The Library Company was joined by other world-class institutions, namely the American Philosophical Society, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the specialized libraries of multiple area universities.

Historical Collectors

I’d like to think book collecting is in the DNA of Philadelphians. Franklin was not the only Colonial-era collector. Early on, Philadelphia was the largest English-speaking city outside of London, with a literate, well-read population. There was an appetite for learning. One of Philadelphia’s most legendary book lovers was James Logan, William Penn’s secretary and all-around statesman. Logan once wrote that “Books are my disease.” His collection—estimated to be well over 2,600 volumes—took up multiple rooms, hallways, and closets at Stenton, his country house. Jim Green of the Library Company speculates that Logan’s collection was so extensive that it invaded the ordinary domestic spaces and even distorted them. Logan wished to see his books in a room of their own, a room, as he wrote, “which I suppose may vie with any in America.” When he died in 1751, he bequeathed his library to the City of Philadelphia. They finally got a room of their own in 1754 when they were moved to the newly built Loganian Library. Alas, by 1793 the collection was incorporated into the Library Company of Philadelphia where they are accessible today.

The library of Bishop William White, former rector of both St. Peter’s and Christ Church, contains 1,200 books and pamphlets from the 17th century to the 19th century. | Image courtesy of Independence Historical Trust

Another early Philadelphia bibliophile was Bishop William White, the country’s first Episcopalian Bishop and rector of both St. Peter’s and Christ Church. His house still stands and is part of Independence National Historic Park (INHP). For those lucky enough to have toured the house, the White’s love of books still shines through. According to INHP’s chief curator, Karie Diethorn, only a fraction of the books exhibited in the house actually belonged to White. And, as there is no known inventory of his books, she speculates that, like his contemporaries, geography, mathematics, and literature would have shared the shelves with the many theological texts. There is one book that stands out from the others, a daily devotional book titled, Practical Piety, or the Influence of the Religion of the Heart. Published in 1811 and written on the flyleaf, White’s family noted that this was the last book he was holding before he died. Upon his death in 1836, his grandchildren commissioned a portrait from Philadelphia artist John Sartain. Not surprising, except they didn’t want the portrait to be of their grandfather, but of his second-floor study—the room full of books they identified as the personification of White. Today, the original Sartain painting hangs in the INHP exhibit at the Second Bank of the United States.

In later years we have the legacy of the Rosenbach brothers who, as renowned international book dealers, played a central role in developing many important private libraries in the early part of the 20th century. It is not surprising that they amassed their own book collection, because sometimes you just can’t let go. Their collection became the core of the Rosenbach Museum and Library which was founded after their deaths in 1954. Many Philadelphians are aware of their prized possession, the original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which inspires Philadelphia’s annual Bloomsday celebration.

Modern Collecting

To get a sense of modern book collecting trends, I reached out to two individuals who are members of both the Philobiblon Club and the Franklin Inn Club here in Philadephia. While the Philobiblon Club, founded in 1893, is dedicated to those who love books, the Franklin Inn Club, founded in 1902, is dedicated to those who enjoy discussing books. While each club is unique, there is an unsurprising crossover between the two.

Peter Arrell Browne, a Philadelphia attorney and naturalist, collected hair samples from 10 U.S. presidents during the early 1800s. The Academy of Natural Sciences was gifted his large collection of books, specimens, and artifacts. | Image courtesy of Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

I first spoke with George Allen, whose family legacy is William H. Allen Booksellers. Despite being surrounded by books as a child, his own collection is very personal: comic books, a beloved, yet ratty paperback copy of Brave New World, the complete works of Shakespeare, and a number of Masonic Bibles. His love of reading was influenced by his grandmother’s love of mysteries. Allen shared that members of the Philobiblon enjoy “show and tell” time which might highlight the artistry behind a book’s binding, the thrill of the chase in tracking down a particular volume, or even capturing a book that was once owned by someone famous. How a book was produced, by whom, and its provenance is sometimes more fascinating than the words on its pages.

I asked Charles Austermuhl if Philadelphia was unique in its bibliophile tendencies. He demurred, and pointed to our city’s long history, which can produce some unexpected discoveries. One of his favorites, found in the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, is a book of hair samples from the first 10 United States presidents. Austermuhl also pointed to the difference between accumulating and collecting. Both Allen and Austermuhl stated that these days it’s easier for book collecting to cross economic boundaries. People who love reading love books, and becoming a book collector can start with a $2 used paperback.

I was also curious about women and book collecting. While both Philobiblon and the Franklin Inn were once the domain of scholarly men, both are fully integrated today. We couldn’t come up with a Philadelphia-specific example, but Austermuhl clued me into the 20th century book collector Mary Hyde Eccles, the first woman elected to the Grolier Club, New York’s own bibliophile club. Eccles once observed that a collector must have three things: resources, education, and freedom, and, she once stated, “Only a few women have had all three, but times are changing!” One positive sign for woman collectors comes from Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn. I mention them here because I’d love to see an organization in Philadelphia pick up on this idea. Run by women, and influenced by Eccles, they have instituted the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize, an annual prize of $1,000 for an outstanding book collection conceived and built by a young woman.

Indeed, Philadelphia possesses an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beautiful spaces filled with interesting book collections. Here are three of my favorites. None of them are easily accessible to the general public, but opportunities arise through tours and public events. Take advantage when you can.

Carpenters’ Hall

The book collection at Carpenters’ Hall dates back to 1736. | Photo: Mickey Herr

The library at Carpenters’ Hall predates the current, iconic building. Established in 1736, the collection focused on architecture, mechanics, and mathematics–subjects that would serve to educate the members of the Carpenters’ Company which was founded 12 years earlier. This collection wouldn’t find its permanent home until 1868, when the Hall’s second-floor committee room was renovated to include floor-to-ceiling walnut bookcases, carpet, gas fixtures, and new furniture. At the time there were more than 5,700 titles. By 1900, when the library committee ceased to purchase new items, architecture-related books dropped to less than 1% of the collection. Still, the architecture-focused treasures are important, such as Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). Palladio’s influence on the Founding Fathers’ architecture cannot be overstated, and this particular copy was owned by Company member Robert Smith who purchased it in February of 1754, the same year he completed the iconic steeple of Christ Church. Then there is the 23-volume collection Description De L’Egypt created by hundreds of artists and scholars during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.  It was purchased in 1840 from Thomas U. Walter, the architect of our nation’s capitol building, who helped fuel Egyptian Revival architecture in America. What might be most surprising about the Carpenters’ Hall library is the influence women had on building this well-used collection. Which is perhaps why we find a practical book such as Winter Homes for Invalids or simply Mothers and Daughters included in this collection.

During the library restoration in 1868, the other half of the second floor was refitted to become the living quarters of a newly appointed superintendent of Carpenters’ Hall. This job went to Sarah Stewart, the recent widow of longtime Company member James Stewart. Up until James’ death, the couple had been living nearby and overseeing general maintenance of the organization’s buildings. Company members were happy to hire someone they trusted. In July 1857, Sarah moved into the newly renovated apartment space with two daughters and two orphaned granddaughters. Part of Sarah’s duties included overseeing the library and becoming the de facto tour guide for visitors. She ultimately held this position for 26 years, until her death in 1872. At that point, her daughter Martha Stewart stepped into the role and especially relished her work as official librarian.

The Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library

The Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library at the German Society of Pennsylvania has over 50,000 volumes, one of the largest collections of German-language books outside of Germany. | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

Named in honor of Joseph Horner who left behind a generous bequest, this research library is housed in its original 1888 reading room inside the German Society of Pennsylvania. The Society was founded in 1764 to aid Philadelphia’s large German-speaking immigrant population. The library was established in the early 19th century to help grow the mission of education and promoting German culture. The reading room, which was fully restored in the 1990s, is a quiet oasis of bi-level glass-fronted cases containing more than 50,000 volumes spanning the 16th through 20th centuries. The vast majority of books, about 90%, are in German and were published in the 19th century. The Horner Collection is known as one of the largest collections of German-language materials outside of Germany. While the library has become an important research center, it continues to be a source of entertainment for members of the Society who are able to borrow from a newer selection of books, including a collection of children’s literature. According to librarian Bettina Hess, these fiction holdings have always been well-loved and well-used.

For those interested in learning more about German life in America, the German-American Collection contains a wealth of materials. Before their arrival in America, German separatist Protestant communities, whose doctrines resembled those of the English Quakers, were invited by William Penn to join his “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania. A prize possession of the Horner Collection is the book Eine Nachricht wegen der Landschaft Pennsilvania in America (Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania in America), printed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1683. This book, tailored to the German-speaking audience, gives William Penn’s account of Pennsylvania and influenced those who decided to come to America. This is surely one of the earliest examples of “marketing materials” in print.

Another fascinating find is Die Geheimnisse von Philadelphia (The Mysteries of Philadelphia), published in 1850. The German Society owns two of the three known extant copies which, written anonymously, paints a vivid picture of life in Philadelphia in the 1850s.

Franklin Inn Club

The Franklin Inn Club was founded at the turn of the 20th century to promote literary activities in Philadelphia. | Image courtesy of Franklin Inn Club

Founded in 1902 as a club to promote the literary activities of Philadelphia, founding members of the Franklin Inn Club were authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers working in the city’s then thriving publishing business. While being published was an early qualification, admission to membership was broadened after WWII to include those who “contribute notably to the literary, artistic, or intellectual life of the community.” Until 1980, this included only men. Today, the heart of the club is still the three-course lunches that are served at long, scarred, dining tables, which always includes wine and hearty conversation. From the beginning, these lunches served as a way station for distinguished visitors passing through town. One of my favorite stories handed down through the years is the day Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeates attended lunch on the same afternoon. Today, you still never know who you might sit down next to during a meal. Yet, for any booklover, the draw is definitely the second-floor library. Often described as shabby genteel, the upstairs hall is lined with glass-front bookcases filled with more than a century of Philadelphia writers. The majority of the books in the library were written and donated by its members. As David J. Holmes points out in his “Introduction to the Library Catalogue” in the club’s 2004 centennial publication, members have been prominent anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, artists, bibliographers, bird watchers, biographers, booksellers, botanists, critics, economists, editors, essayists, historians, illustrators, journalists, lawyers, musical composers, naturalists, novelists, physicians, psychiatrists, poets, publishers, sculptors, sportsmen, translators, travel writers, and war correspondents.  One can only be struck by the variety of work published by the membership. As Holmes states, “The catalogue is a history of the Club in bibliographical form.”

Upon quizzing several innmates, as members affectionately refer to one another, about choosing their favorite book in the collection, like all true bibliophiles, they can never name just one. But everyone stated a similar favorite experience. Going upstairs in an off moment to sit alone, in the quiet, surrounded by all those books. I too have done this. There is an energy there that one cannot explain, but simply experience.                  


About the Author

Mickey Herr lived in many places until her heart settled in Philadelphia. She has led the development and communications efforts for several significant nonprofit cultural institutions in the city. Current interests involve elevating the hidden histories of women. She is at work on a novel and gives tours for Hidden City Philadelphia, both of which are allowing her to research incredible untold stories of women. She believes in ghosts, synchronicity, and taking chances. Read her writing on Philadelphia, history, and geneology at mickeyherr.com.


  1. Dan says:

    I own about 3500 books relating to Philly, about half of them I’ve read! Most purchased via eBay…

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      Which is precisely why I attempt to stay away from eBay and similar sites! It’s addicting isn’t it??

  2. Dan says:

    Pennsylvania Hospital, our first hospital, has an excellent collection of 200 to 300 year old medical books

    1. Barbara Cavanaugh says:

      Yes, the Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Library (at the nation’s first hospital!) was established as a working library for practitioners and contains many treasures.

      1. Mickey Herr says:

        I truly could have written an article featuring only medical libraries. We have so many medical history options here in Philly.

  3. SouthJersey_1 says:

    Although not publicly accessible, a mention of Harry K’s extensive compendium of Philadelphia books and ephemera would have been appropriate given – 1) his association with HCP, and 2) the potential for being the largest collection of this content in private ownership. Harry was kind enough to open his personal residence several years ago as part of a joint tour with the Preservation Alliance. The sheer quantity of material, relative to the space in which it’s housed, can only be fully appreciated by direct observation.

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      Ha, yes! Harry K’s library is certainly legendary!

  4. Jonathan Schmalzbach says:

    Fantastic read.

    I was fortunate enough to have and office at Carpenters’ Hall in the late ’90s. And more fortunate to sip cognac in the library at the end of many work days with the most excellent curator of that time. Delicious, warm, memories of being embraces in books and conversation

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      Sipping cognac in the library sounds perfect!

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