Historic Trenton’s Day in The Life: The Founding of The Library

The Trenton Free Public Library (TFPL) celebrated its 120th anniversary at the current address on Academy street this weekend, but the legacy goes farther than that. For Historic Trenton’s Day in the Life, we’re looking back through newspapers from the beginning and examining everyday problems, solutions, and needs during historic Trenton’s past. Today, we return to 1750 and make our way to 1900 to see how the TFPL we know today was created. 

The Trenton Free Public Library boasts the oldest Library in New Jersey. It was founded in 1750 under the name The Trenton Library Company after Dr. Thomas Cadwalader gave 500 pounds, roughly $94,414 if priced today, to the fund the library. Benjamin Franklin is said to have purchased the library’s first 50 books. At this time, it was not a free library but a subscription service. However, trouble stuck in 1776. 

“So in 1776, wherever the books were located, we still haven’t found out… wherever they were, the British burned it…. This was just prior to the Battle of Trenton. So they felt that I guess it was demoralizing to show who was in charge. And so they lost everything. The only things that were not lost were the things that had been checked out,” said Laura M. Poll, Archivist of the TFPL Trentoniana Department. 

She explained that although most of the books were burned that night, those checked out survived. So the library sent out a notice when it was restarted in the 1780s for all books to be returned. 

“It seems these were books that were brought back when the call went out saying we want to start the Trenton Library Company again. Whoever had books out, please bring them, please return them. And if you’re no longer in the city, we will pay for them to be shipped to us,” Poll said. 

Throughout the 1800s, the library would bounce around from company to company offering a subscription to view or check out the books. From 1855 to 1900, it would change hands between different associations—this would-be due to fires and costs to maintain the collection. By the end of the century, the libraries’ books would land with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and there it would be the collections home until it’s final stop at the TFPL. 

This led to the creation of the Union Library Company. “By 1885, the library had raised enough money to build a brownstone to hold the collection on East State Street, adjacent to the old post office. The library was on the first floor,” writes the TFPL.

In 1900 there was a shift in policy. The idea of a Free Public Library was brought to a city-wide vote and won, 4,482 “for” to 1,052 “against. For those that voted against, Poll could only guess. 

“They still have to pay the library taxes. Okay, so it’s not really free. You don’t have to pay an extra membership. It’s being supported through taxes. So probably people didn’t want their taxes to go up. That’s just my guess,” Poll said.

 A board assembled, and using funds from the city budget, the board was able to set the groundwork and purchase the books from the Union Library Collection. The library then spent $20,000 for the purchase of a lot on Academy Street, $80,000 for the building of a permanent library and $15,000 for furnishing and equipping the interior for a total of 4115,000 or $4,001,671 of today’s money.

“Then by 1915 they had outgrown this building. They always do. They always underestimate how much space they’re going to need. And that’s when I think it was the grandson of Thomas Cadwallader. He donated money for the addition, which is the reading room and then the stacks underneath… And then it wasn’t until 1976 where the whole wing was built,” Poll said. 

Since then, the library has been a pillar in the community, helping bring Trenton residents programs, movies, and most importantly, books.

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