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10 books from Seattle’s first reading list

Seattle is a city where one of our librarians, Nancy Pearl, has become a national celebrity, worthy of an action figure and a best-selling book series documenting her “book lust.” Pearl is influential in guiding us toward what to read, but she was not the first Seattle librarian to compile a book list.

That credit goes to Sarah Yesler, wife of city founder Henry Yesler who launched Seattle’s first industry (a sawmill), served as mayor and became our first locally made millionaire. Sarah was influential in her own right: a civic activist who pushed for women’s rights, who practiced spiritualism, and who founded the city’s first library. She is often called Seattle’s first librarian.

On July 30, 1868, a year before the city saw its first plumbed bathtub, a small group called the Seattle Literary Association gathered at Yesler Hall to organize the first library. This was not a public library like the ones we know today. It was private. Annual dues were $1.50; 50 cents for “Ladies.” In a city with about 1,000 inhabitants, the association had a starting membership of 50 individuals.

Mrs. Henry Yesler, a.k.a. "Seattle's first librarian," ca. 1865
Mrs. Henry Yesler, a.k.a. “Seattle’s first librarian,” ca. 1865

The association’s purpose was to promote “mental culture and social intercourse.” It sponsored lectures and concerts on a harmonium. And on April 1, 1869, the group purchased its first books by placing a $60 order with A.L. Bancroft & Co. of San Francisco, publishers, stationers and booksellers. Seattle was embarked on its path to being a “City of Literature” carved out of the frontier.

So, what did the Nancy Pearls of Seattle read back in the day?

The records are sketchy, but we have a hint. In the Seattle Public Library collection today there is a narrow ledger for the Seattle Library Association dated 1889. The books therein are numbered from #1 on up. The list suggests to me that some of the books from Sarah Yesler’s original Seattle Literary Association or from her private library might have been incorporated in this collection. Nine of the first 10 books listed in the ledger were popular titles in print at the time of that first library order in 1869.

Could this be indicative of the original order placed that year? If so, here’s what Seattle was reading:

Book # 1 Bitter Sweet by J. G Holland
#2 Lessons in Life by J.G. Holland
#3 Timothy Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married by J.G. Holland

Josiah Gilbert Holland was the editor of the Scribner’s magazine. A bestselling author, he was an apostle of white, Protestant American values and the expanding middle class with enormous popular appeal. Bitter Sweet, an epic poem of religious revelation, sold more than 100,000 copies in its day. A contemporary of Walt Whitman—he once roughly rejected a poem Whitman submitted to Scribner’s—Holland was widely influential. One associate, Edward Eggleston, wrote that Holland was “the most popular and effective preacher of social and domestic moralities in his age, the oracle of the active and ambitious young man; of the susceptible and enthusiastic young woman; the guide, the philosopher, and school-master of humanity at large, touching all questions of life and character.”

#4 Autocrat at the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes
#5 Professor at the Breakfast Table by O.W.Holmes

These two popular collections of essays by the Boston physician, poet, essayist and inventor a widely used model of the stereoscope contained such popular pearls of wisdom as “Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable,” an observation that explains reality TV, selfies and Donald Trump.

#6 Hearth & Home Papers by Harriet Beecher Stowe
#7 Little Foxes by H.B. Stowe
#8 Old Town Folks by H.B. Stowe

Stowe, famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the original editors of Hearth & Home Illustrated magazine and wrote a series of essays and stories on domestic life and the changing nature of home, including musings on carpets, table settings, servants and the change landscape of Victorian domesticity. She was a bit like a literary Martha Stewart.

#9 Mountaineering by Clarence King

This is the one book outside that 1869 time frame (published in 1872). It is about the Sierras by explorer King who was head of the U.S. Geodetic Survey—a classic on understanding the geography of the West.

#10 Gates Ajar by Elizabeth S. Phelps

This novel was a bestselling book on the afterlife that appealed to spiritualists (like the Yeslers) and post-Civil war families who had lost loved ones, portraying heaven as a kind of idealized life on earth with friends and family reunited—a view considered by many to be blasphemous at the time.

These authors at the top of Seattle’s book lists were the 19th century rough equivalents of Robert Fulghum, Martha Stewart, Dan Savage, Jon Krakauer and J.Z. Knight. We’re taking more baths now, but our popular reading habits don’t seem to have changed a lot.

Seattle Public Library, Seattle, housed in the Yesler Mansion, ca. 1899
Seattle Public Library, Seattle, housed in the Yesler Mansion, ca. 1899

And what became of that first library, you ask? The library plugged along, but didn’t flourish. It sputtered, but was resuscitated in 1872 when membership swelled to 80 and the shelves groaned with 278 volumes. Still, it didn’t take off, even when located above a liquor store. The first library died in 1881 and its books were donated to the Territorial University. There was no other city library until the Ladies Library Association revived the idea in 1888. Sarah Yesler had died in 1887, but her widow Henry donated books to the new private library. A few years later, the city established its first true public library, which was located for some years in the old Yesler family’s mansion.

Our libraries have become treasured institutions since that time. The main branch of the Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is a major tourist attraction. Mini-libraries are popping up like literary birdfeeders in every neighborhood. And the private library like Sarah Yesler’s is making a comeback: Crosscut founder David Brewster is opening the Seattle Athenaeum at the downtown YMCA in January, 2016, reviving a concept that started with Benjamin Franklin (I am a member and book donor).

Perhaps it can open its doors with an evening featuring the Nancy Pearl (living) and Sarah Yesler, called from the spirit world by a medium, to discuss their favorite books. I think they’d have a lot in common.

This article was adapted for a talk given to the members of Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum of which the author is a member and donor of books. A story about the Athenaeum previously ran on Crosscut.

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