In September of 1797, a series of advertisements appeared over several weeks in the major New York City newspapers of the day (e.g., the Diary, the Time Piece, the Argus, the Minerva) offering subscription memberships to a new “READING SHOP” that was to be established in the city. This was cause for great excitement and interest among the educated populace, as this would be the very first such Reading Room in America (although back in 1731, Benjamin Franklin and some friends in Philadelphia pooled their funds to buy and share books). This offer was made by one Arondt Van Hook, a long-time resident of the city, who hoped to gain enough subscribers to make a success of his new endeavor.
For fees ranging from 4 cents for a single visit to $1.50 for a 3 month membership – visitors to the Reading Room could immerse themselves in the most recent publications from the United States and Europe, including magazines, reviews, annual registers, handbills, newspapers, and a profusion of pamphlets. Additionally, all types of maps were hung about the room, and a small reference library of dictionaries, histories, biographies, law and geography was available.
Arondt was born in New York 1747, the oldest of 7 children of Isaac Van Hook and Cornelia Sebring. His great-great grandfather was Arent Isaacszen van Hoeck, the immigrant ancestor of the VanHook family. The Reading Room was a late in life career for Arondt. Before the Revolutionary War, Arondt was involved in manufacturing tobacco products – in his petition in 1777 seeking some recompense (he served as a Lieutenant the New York 1st Regiment), he stated he lost all his “tobacco instruments and snuff mills” in the evacuation of New York. In the 1700’s, in an area of lower Manhattan called “The Swamp” was concentrated the leather operations of the day – particularly leather tanning. Arondt was the owner of a tanyard on Gold Street in The Swamp. Immediately prior to his Reading Room business, Arondt was the jailor for the city of New York – the “keeper of the gaol.”
Arondt married Abigail Stevens in 1771, and they had 3 sons. The oldest son, Isaac Alvan was graduating from Columbia College (now University) with a law degree at the time of the opening of the Reading Room. The second son, William, also became a lawyer with a degree from Columbia, and the third son, Frederick, was a clerk in the New York Customs House – but died relatively young about age 29.
During October, 1797, the Reading Room opened and was received to great success, with glowing reviews in the papers. It opened at 149 Water Street (site of the present day Wall Street Plaza building at address 88 Pine Street) to citizens and foreigners alike – as long as they were male. Located near one the busiest centers for commerce in Manhattan (the Tontine Coffee House – the precursor to the New York Stock Exchange), the Reading Room provided a quiet respite for patrons. According to contemporary reviews, strictest silence was observed in the Reading Room, and additions of reading material were constantly added. After filling their head’s with a “feast” of reading, visitors could adjourn to a room next door for refreshment of a “dish of coffee and a biscuit.” Subscriptions to the Reading Room could be purchased at the newspaper offices, at the Tontine and at city bookstores.
The popularity of the Reading Room spread widely, as a proposal was put forth that fall for the establishment of a Reading Room in Baltimore modeled “nearly upon the same plan with that designed by Mr. Van Hook,” but with the addition of a circulating library.
To be continued in Part 2 of this post….