Out of the Ashes: The Birth of the Chicago Public Library

Daniel Hautzinger
The first location of the Chicago Public Library, in a recommissioned water tank.
The first Central Library, in a recommissioned water tank. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CPL Archives, Central Library.)

Find all of our Victoria content here. The Great Chicago Fire: A Chicago Stories Special premieres on October 9 at 8:00 pm and will be available to stream at wttw.com/chicagofire.

144 years ago today, the Chicago Public Library opened in a circular iron water tank at the southeast corner of LaSalle and Adams with an inventory of books donated from several countries, including England, Germany, and Belgium, as well as from around the U.S. To get into the Library patrons had to climb an external staircase. The only ventilation came from pulley-operated panels in the ceiling, and the tank was stuffy in summer and freezing in winter. Many of the books were esoteric, of interest to only a small subset of learned people, with titles like Sermons on the Interpretation of Scripture, Elements of Roman Law, and a seven-volume History of the Reformation.

But it was a free public library open to everyone, the first in Chicago. After the Great Chicago Fire devastated the city and burned an estimated two to three million books in October, 1871, an “English Book Donation” was proposed, wherein English citizens would send books to Chicago in sympathy for the destruction.

Queen Victoria's signature in a book she donated to the Chicago Public Library.Queen Victoria's signature in a book she donated to CPL. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CPL Archives, Queen Victoria’s Signature.) The English parliamentarian and author Thomas Hughes threw his support behind the plan, having been impressed by the energy, industry, and promise of Chicago during a visit in 1870, according to Library archivist Morag Walsh. He solicited donations from the large British publishers and learned societies, and many prominent British citizens contributed volumes: the statesman Benjamin Disraeli; the philosopher John Stuart Mill; the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Even Queen Victoria sent a book to Chicago, a biography of her late husband Prince Albert that featured a dedication bookplate and her signature. It can still be viewed today in Special Collections at the Harold Washington Library Center. Victoria donated another book about Albert in 1884, while in 1972 Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first British donation with the gift of a lavishly illustrated volume about Buckingham Palace. An additional gift by Elizabeth in 2005, of a book about Windsor Castle, commemorated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the British Consulate General in Chicago.

Some of the surviving books from the English donation in CPL's Special Collections.Some of the surviving books from the English donation in CPL's Special Collections. Since no standard library classification system existed when the Library was founded (the Dewey Decimal system did not come into being until 1876), William Frederick Poole, the first Librarian of the Library, cataloged books with a simple “P” for Poole and a number. Poole had been the first Librarian of the Cincinnati Public Library and later enjoyed the same distinction at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Approximately 200 volumes of the English donation have survived in their original bindings, and one occasionally still surfaces in some corner of CPL’s massive collection. They can even be found in CPL’s catalogue, though they do not circulate. British books of that era were well-made and hardy, with thick leather bindings, quality paper, and beautiful tooling, which has helped them to survive. (The same can’t be said for some of the books donated by Germany: a letter published in a Chicago German-language newspaper characterizes them with righteous indignation as “The atrocious rubbish of antiquated sorry publications, which a cheese-monger would not have bought to wrap his cheese in as the rotten paper would have out-stunk the cheese…”)

The fourth location of the Central Library, in City Hall at LaSalle and Washington.The fourth location of the Central Library, in City Hall at LaSalle and Washington. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CPL Archives, Central Library.) The first branch library, the Blackstone branch in Kenwood, did not open until 1904, so deposit stations served the neighborhoods. Horse-drawn carriages delivered books requested by patrons to the outposts, which were located in candy and drug stores, businesses, churches, and factories.  

In its first twenty-four years CPL occupied five separate locations, including an eleven-year stint in the City Hall. It finally built a permanent home in 1897, which opened on the anniversary of the Fire: the Central Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. Designed by an associate of the same firm that had designed the Art Institute of Chicago, which was completed in 1893, the Central Library cost about two million dollars to construct. The building included a Soldiers’ Memorial Hall that was leased for 50 years for a nominal amount to the Civil War veterans group the Grand Army of the Republic. The Hall commemorated the sacrifices of soldiers and sailors of Illinois who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and the GAR held meetings and exhibits in it.

Construction of the Central Library, now the Cultural Center.Construction of the Central Library, now the Cultural Center. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CPL Archives, Central Library.) The main Library remained there until 1991, when it moved to the Harold Washington Library Center. Many remnants of the early history of CPL have been preserved there, including the first two books shelved in 1873, the volumes donated by Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, photographs of the construction of the Cultural Center, and uniforms, saddles, maps and more from the GAR collection, which was bequeathed to the Library in 1948. These and other artifacts are available to view by the public for free at Special Collections on the ninth floor. Open hours and contact information are listed at CPL’s website. As archivist Morag Walsh says, history “means so much more when you can see it.”

Limestone blocks for the Central Library, now the Cultural Center.Limestone blocks for the Central Library, now the Cultural Center. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CPL Archives, Central Library.)