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Ann Shallus's Circulating Library

Contemporaries referred to Philadelphia of the early republic as the "Athens of America." In 1800 the City of Brotherly Love had the largest population of any American city and was arguably the industrial, scientific, and cultural center of the young and vibrant nation. As the genteel community blossomed, so the number of hotels, restaurants, theaters, circuses, museums, libraries, and bookstores multiplied. This was the climate that fostered the growth of Shallus's Circulating Library, probably the largest circulating library in the city during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Decades before the birth of the free public library, circulating libraries were offshoots of the earlier "social libraries." Both circulating and social libraries served the same purpose by providing a growing constituency with reading materials. But, where social libraries were book collections jointly owned by discrete groups of individuals who paid a subscription rate to join, the younger libraries were commercial enterprises owned by proprietors who rented out their wares for a small fee to any member of the community who paid. Though the renting of books is a tradition that goes hack to ancient Greece, Allan Ramsay of Edinburgh is considered the first proprietor of a formal circulating library, renting his books in 1725. In the American colonies, William Rind of Annapolis is credited as being the first to loan books for profit in 1762. The first Philadelphia circulating library, was begun in 1767 by Lewis Nicola. The end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries saw the establishment of dozens of new circulating libraries nationally; these were just a small part of an international vogue. When the Shallus's library opened around 1810, there were at least six others in operation in Philadelphia. For further reading on American circulating libraries see David Kaser's A Book for a Sixpence (Pittsburgh: Beta Phi Mu, 1980).

Francis Shallus, engraver of the Shallus's Circulating Library bookplates, is first listed in the Philadelphia city directory as an engraver in 1797. Francis, son of Jacob Shallus (believed to be the scrivener who engrossed the United States Constitution), was a reputable craftsman and an active participant in Philadelphia's lively literary and publishing circles. He is noted for being a principal engraver For Thomas Dobson's acclaimed 18-volume Encyclopaedia (1798), Benjamin Smith Barton's ground-breaking Elements of Botany (1803), and numerous other plate books; he did all forty-one plates for the 1818 Philadelphia edition of The Voyages of Captain Cook. He engraved city views, maps, and atlases and also has been identified as the engraver of a number of medals, including ones for the Philadelphia Typographic Society and the Masons. He producer innumerable engraved trade cards and bookplates by fellow Philadelphians. He also executed aquatints and even tried his hand at publishing.

In 1800 Francis married Ann Peters; and in 1810 Shallus's Circulating Library first appears in the Philadelphia city directory. The Shalluses advertised in an 1810 newspaper: "Just published, Shallus's Catalogues for the year 1810, of his new and increasing Circulating Library, Containing Upwards of 9,000 volumes of Modern Publications (With criticisms Occasionally Annexed)—No. 89, — South Front . . . Philadelphia General Catalogue 218 pages price 25 cents. Select catalogue 84 pages, price 12 1/2 cents. . . . "

The library started out in a central location on Front Street, but in 1811 advertised its move to the more fashionable vicinity of 3rd and Chestnut Streets. There its neighbors included another circulating library, the posh Mansion House Hotel, the First Bank of the United States, and the marbled and brick homes of the wealthy. In 1814 the name of the library, was changed to the Ann Peters Shallus's Circulating Library, suggesting that Francis's wife, who may well have been managing the library previously, was now the sole proprietor. Contemporary advertisements confirm this, originally referring to "his" catalogues but soon changing their references to "Mrs. Shallus's'' library. As a female proprietor of a circulating library Ann Shallus was unusual, though not alone: at least a dozen other circu­lating libraries in this country were being successfully managed by women during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1818, with her busi­ness obviously prospering, Ann announced the opening of a branch: "Northern Library. Mrs. Shallus Presents her compliments to the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Northern part of the City, and begs leave to inform them that she has opened a library, for their accommodation . . . where, she hopes, by strict attention, to merit a share of patronage, sufficient to support the undertaking. . . . The Library, No. 90 South Third Street, will also be continued as usual."

Like most other circulating libraries, Ann Shallus's was located in a bookstore and "books bought, sold, and exchanged" were advertised along with the rental library. (Other, more unusual, locations for early-nine­teenth-century circulating libraries included a riverboat, an outlet for Sa­ratoga Spring water, and a doctor's office.) At Shallus's, those inclined could browse the shelves, rent or purchase a volume or two, and mingle with those if both like and opposite sex: forunlike most of the coffee-houses and social libraries of earlier centuriescirculating libraries were places where women, too, were encouraged to congregate. In fact, propri­etors of these libraries (both female and male) often targeted women specifically. Ann Shallus was one of these proprietors and made a concerted effort to attract the female audience—by publicizing in the library under her own name, by renting books of interest to women, and, not coincidentally, by marketing a variety of fancy goods. Alongside the books and magazines for rent, she advertised bonnets, turbans, fans, and fabric for sale.

So what did the men and women frequenting the Shallus establishment read? No catalogs of the Shallus's library survive, but advertisements in local papers and the catalogs of other circulating libraries can be used to gauge their stock. The large female readership previously mentioned did much to define the popular literature of the time and no doubt heavily influenced the Shallus inventory. There would have been a distinct emphasis on literature and fiction, with such British classics as the works of Shakespeare, Richardson, and Fielding, and the Idler and Spectator well represented. However, even more in evidence would have been the newer British and American fiction: as Shallus's advertised repeatedly, the library specialized in ''principally the most modern publications." These would have included the works of such female authors as Susanna Rowson, Hannah Foster, and Sally Sayward Wood; the many titles by James Kirke Paulding, Charles Brockden Brown, and Washington Irving; and, beginning in the 1820s, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and the ubiquitous Sir Walter Scott. There would probably have been a significant assortment of popular biography, history, travel, essays, plays, and poetry. Newspapers and magazines were soaring in popularity and no doubt claimed a good piece of shelf space. Circulating libraries catered to the in­terests of a cosmopolitan clientele more interested in reading for its enter­tainment value than for its educational possibilities, and stocked very little in the way of philosophy or religion or anything of a scholarly nature. The Shallus library, still ''new and increasing'' in 1811, boasted over 14,000 volumes. Thus it was much larger than most circulating libraries of the time, but was only half the size of the renowned one owned by Hocquet Caritat of New York, which claimed more than 30,000 volumes in 1800. Prices for rentals fluctuated somewhat from year to year (and from city to city), but the average cost was about $6.00 for a year's use, $3.50 for 6 months, $2.00 for 3 months, or a weekly rate of 12½ cents for an octavo volume and 6½ cents a duodecimo.

Francis Shallus died in 1821 and the branch closed soon after. In that same year Ann Shallus advertised a new service in the newspapers: "Mrs. Shallus informs Gentlemen going on Voyages, that she can accommodate them with select Libraries of the most approved and interesting works, for the small sum of one or two dollars per month, or by the voyage."

Curiously, in 1822 and 1823, while Shallus's Circulating Library continues to be listed in Philadelphia directories, Ann Shallus's Circulating Library is also listed in the New Orleans city directory. The early 1820s were a troubled economic time for Philadelphia, but New Orleans was growing rapidly as a port and cosmopolitan center; Ann Shallus may well have been trying to tap into this market by opening a New Orleans library as a depot for both overland and seafaring travelers. It is unknown whether Ann moved to New Orleans to open her library, but an 1822 advertisement in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser indicates that she was spending at least part of her time in Philadelphia trying to deal with a shrinking clientele: "Mrs. S. informs her friends and the public in general that she continues her establishment at No.94 South Third Street, where may be had, all the latest English and American publications. In consequence of the present scarcity of money, all subscriptions commenced after the first of February, 1822, will be at $5 per year, $2.75 for 6 months, and $1.50 per quarterPayable in advance. N.B. Catalogues of the Library are just published."

The last mention of Ann Shallus's Circulating Library is in the Philadelphia city directory of 1824. (In 1828, seven years after her husband's death, Ann Shallus filed a certificate of intestacy in Germantown.) Clearly though, during the library's fourteen-year history, it had been one of the city's most popular social amusements.

Recently the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired a collection of plays that served as prompt copies at the celebrated New Chestnut Street Theater beginning in the late 1820s. Of those, nine bear an earlier Shallus provenance, containing a total of fourteen bookplates and one book-stamp. Three of the bookplates are letterpress, advertising location and rates for the library and "engraving executed as usual." The eleven engraved book­plates are the work of Francis Shallus; three of those are iconographic, while the others are calligraphic. More on Francis and Ann Shallus (in­cluding more examples of Shallus bookplates) can be found in Mary E. Holt, "A Checklist of the Work of Francis Shallus, Philadelphia Engraver," Winterthur Portfolio 4 (1968): 143-158. The bookplates that Francis en­graved for his wife's bookstore, while a bit weak in their execution and certainly not up to the caliber of other work he did, are charming in their lack of artifice. Those featured in this cover story are typical of engraving of the time with their floral arrangements (cover plate; 2 inches x 2¾) inches), well-rounded women and stylized views (2¼ inches x 3½ inches), and fanciful embellishments (2¼ inches x 3 1/8 inches). Francis's delight in ornament and Ann's enthusiasm for her library speak out clearly in these small tokens of the trade. 

Karen Nipps

Library Company of Philadelphia


[Originally published in Journal of Library History, vol. 26, no. 4 (Spring 1991): 608-610.]