-posted by Jade D.
“Changing lives. Creating the Future.”
2016 marks the 125th anniversary of The Seattle Public Library. After it was adopted as a department of the city in 1890, the Library opened its first reading room in Pioneer Square on April 8, 1891.
To honor this milestone, we will be posting a series of articles here about the Library’s history and life in the 1890’s. We also encourage our patrons to share their favorite memories of SPL on social media using the hashtag #SPL125. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Seattle in 1891 was very much a city rising out of the ashes. Two years prior, in 1889, the city had experienced a devastating fire which swept through the city’s commercial and industrial center, destroying 64 acres of land. Seattleites lost their homes and businesses and were faced with the extraordinary task of how to rebuild.
Yet rebuild they did and newcomers continued to flood the city. (Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle’s population grew by 1,112% according to census statistics.) This 1891 promotional booklet from our Special Collections describes Seattle’s abundant resources, natural beauty, and commercial promise in an effort to attract more people to the city. It declares “Men and women do die at their appointed time in and about Seattle, but they regret the necessity deeply for it is extremely pleasant to stay alive there.”
As more people settled in Seattle, the idea of creating a public library to establish the city as a true metropolitan center became more attractive. Although the concept of a public library had several unofficial starts dating back as far as 1868, it wasn’t until October 1890 that the library received official recognition from the city. On April 8, 1891, the library opened on the top floor of the Occidental Building in Pioneer Square. It primarily served as a reading room for periodicals until December when a shipment of thousands of books from Boston arrived. The honor of the first borrowed book went to Arnold W. Conant, vice president of a local lumber company, who checked out Mark Twain’s bestselling “Innocents Abroad.”
In addition to the opening of the library, here are a few other momentous 1891 events around the city:
- February: St. Francis Hall, the predecessor to Seattle University opens its doors at 6th Avenue and Spring Street.
- May 3: Seattle doubles in size with the annexation of the Ravenna, University District, Magnolia, Green Lake and Wallingford.
- May 6: President Benjamin Harrison visits and declares “I have kept track of the advance of Seattle, but figures failed to convey an idea of its progress.”
- December 9: George Hall is elected to serve the final 4 months of former mayor Harry White’s term (White was forced to resign after being charged with mismanagement of civil issues and allowing debauchery and crime to run rampant).
What to see more of Seattle in the 1890s? Take a look at our digital collections for photos, maps and more! Curious to learn more about the library’s past? Check out this brief history of the library on our website or peruse Place of Learning, Place of Dreams.