As Mrs. Martha Todd Hill recounts in her charming Story of the Stonington Free Library, published in 1891, the fortunes of the Ladies Book Club were at a low ebb in 1887. Over the years the club had acquired a small collection of books, which it made available to subscribers at a modest fee. The collection was housed in a dismantled store, and was open to the public only on Saturday afternoons and evenings. Perhaps fifty people availed themselves of its services, which were scarcely appealing: the books were tattered and dusty, and none was new.
"One Sunday evening in May, 1887," according to Mrs. Hill, "a lady spoke of a new plan just undertaken in New Haven [to raise money for a local charity]. Turning to another guest, she requested him to give her ten cents. That dime began the Free Library. The guest returned the compliment by asking her and the lady of the house to do the same. Each lady asked two others, and the dimes came in, though it was never obligatory to entice two other victims." In a sense, the Free Library sprang from a sort of Pyramid Club, a chain letter scheme.
Mrs. Hill continues: "As soon as five dollars were collected, they were expended on fresh, attractive books which were conspicuously displayed in a private parlor. Every visitor, attracted by the sight of Little Lord Fauntleroy in his first glory, would ask 'Are these new books for the Book Club?' 'No, for the Free Library, whenever there is one."'
In this way, 330 dimes, representing as many givers, were gathered, most from donors who did not live in Stonington. With the $33 thus collected, thirty-eight books were bought. (In those days new books could be obtained for less than a dollar each). More significantly, perhaps, a committee was formed "to see if a Free Library [was] practicable."
The new library committee discharged its duties conscientiously. It asked itself whether people would use a Free Library, even though loan of books would be "gratis;" whether the ordinary citizens of the Borough could be trusted to care for illustrated books on loan; and what the rights of the owners of the books that were then the stock of the Free Library (that is, the members of the book club) would be. All these questions were resolved satisfactorily and the process of raising money in earnest was begun. Among other means adopted was the sale of the new game, Halma, which was popular in the 1890s.
With all signs favorable, the first meeting of the Stonington Free Library Association, as it came to be called, was held early in September, 1887, and the decision was made to establish a Free Library. The "Aunt Mary Howe House," on the corner of Main and Church Streets, was rented for $100 a year as quarters. Stiles T. Stanton was elected President, but on his death five months later, was succeeded by the vice-president, Reverend Albert Gallatin Palmer. The other officers were Rev. Charles J. Hill, secretary and James H. Weeks, treasurer. Annie J. Wilkinson was named librarian. In July, 1888 they filed a formal certificate of organization stating that "The Name of this organization shall be 'The Stonington Free Library Association"' and its object "is to be the promotion of literary interests in the Town of Stonington by sustaining a Free Library Reading Room and Museum.
By 1891 the Stonington Free Library had 2,830 bound volumes and 520 paperbacks on its shelves. Almost a thousand library cards had been issued, and over 700 were in active use. The circulation was reported as 12,000 volumes a year, a very respectable figure for a community of 2,500 souls.
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