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For 175 Years, St. Louis’ Mercantile Library Has Collected The History Of A City — And A Nation

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
One of the nine different galleries that comprise the current exhibition at the St. Louis Mercantile Library showcases how the library might have looked in its earliest days.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the St. Louis Mercantile Library is the very fact of its existence for 175 years, which makes it the oldest library west of the Mississippi River. But in celebrating that milestone this year, its executive director, John Hoover, decided to do much more than simply highlight that remarkable claim to fame.

As the anniversary neared, Hoover dug deep into the library’s collections, going through book after book and artifact after artifact, as he began outlining his latest major project, an exhibition titled “A Nation, A City, & Its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library.”

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Among the show’s many highlights are documents detailing how, in the 1850s, Harriet Hosmer's marble sculpture “Beatrice Cenci,” now part of the Mercantile Library’s permanent collection, made its way from Rome to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to St. Louis.

“Sometimes my hands were shaking to see how things were unfolding,” Hoover said of pulling together the show. “The idea that the place has survived and danced, in a way, with history — all of these many 17, 18 decades — is very special.”

Hoover wrote much of the massive, hardback catalog that accompanies the exhibition during the early lockdown, in 2020, when access to the Mercantile was restricted.

The book — which Hoover said could easily have been three or four times bigger than it is — details 175 documents, artworks, volumes and other artifacts that together represent the Mercantile’s significance, depth and ongoing role.

“This is the oldest cultural institution in the city, and I think that the great work and sacrifice of the ages and the generations is always in front of me as I work with these collections,” Hoover told St. Louis on the Air.

The show opened in April and will remain on view for at least a year. It’s free and open to the public seven days a week at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Through the exhibition, the Mercantile’s history of documenting both St. Louis and national history comes to life in a particularly fresh and accessible way. All sorts of cultural artifacts — from the first novel published west of the Mississippi, to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter’s Titanic scoop in 1912, to Chuck Berry’s scrapbooks — are on display. Hoover says visitors would need a week’s worth of visits to really dig into the full scope.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Library
The Mercantile Library's Julie Dunn-Morton points out one of many artifacts included in a collection of presidential manuscripts.

On Tuesday’s show, host Sarah Fenske spoke with him about some of the highlights, and also revisited how the Mercantile first got its start in 1846.

“The early American libraries in this country like this one [were] founded by merchants, by people with the means. … These were merchants or business leaders who had enough resources to build a book collection for the community,” Hoover said. “So we were the first public library in that sense.”

Initially located in an early exchange building right alongside the Mississippi riverfront, at Main and Pine, the Mercantile moved farther into downtown St. Louis after its first year, to 4th Street.

“And it was a good thing we did, because the [old] building burned down in 1849, along with everything else with the [great] fire,” Hoover noted. “Then we had our eye on the Locust Street address, where we resided for 150 years downtown.”

In 1998, the Mercantile Library became affiliated with UMSL. It’s now located on the lower levels of the campus’ Thomas Jefferson Library, serving as a resource for students as well as outside researchers and the general public.

Mercantile Library Celebrates 175 Years Preserving History As It Happens
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with the library's longtime executive director, John Hoover.

Hoover offered several suggestions of where to begin one’s visit, or first of several visits, to the 175th anniversary exhibition. One section, near the library’s entrance, includes numerous “firsts” — including the first book of poetry west of the Mississippi and the first time the word “Missouri” occurred on a map.

From there, he recommends visitors walk down to the atrium. There, they’d find Auguste Chouteau’s “Narrative of the Settlement of St. Louis,” as well as the only known photograph of a lead-line throw, used by navigators to judge the depths of a body of water (in this case, the Mississippi).

“That’s marking twain,” Hoover explained. “It’s an image that was taken in St. Louis about 90 years ago — of someone on the river marking twain for a steamboat. It’s a magnificent image.”

The library’s fine arts curator, Julie Dunn-Morton, pointed out in a recent tour how the Mercantile’s accumulation of its collections has often happened in real time with the history they document.

“Our history, our collection building, just was right in the heart of that,” she said. The Americana showcased in the anniversary exhibit, she added, “is kind of our history.”

That collection building continues today, Hoover said.

“There was an old book collector in this town named William Bixby, and the symbol on his bookplate was an omnivorous octopus, where each tentacle was holding every book,” he said. “I feel like the strength of this institution is to collect dramatically, often, and as well and intentionally as possible.”

Related Event
What: A Nation, A City, & Its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library
When: On view now through at least April 2022
Where: St. Louis Mercantile Library, inside the Thomas Jefferson Library on UMSL’s North Campus (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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