Behind the Scenes Snapshots of History

Books in Trust: The Germantown Friends Free Library – Part 1

Germantown Friends School Meetinghouse, 34 W. Coulter Street.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Proverbs 29:18

Today, Germantown Friends School is well-known for its strong arts and theater programs.  Yet there was a time not too long ago when the school could not acquire fiction for its library.  The restriction lay was written into a type of ancient trust so common in Philadelphia institutional life.  The Cope Trust, set up in the 1870s to fund the purchase of new books in a library open to both students at GFS and the greater Germantown community, explicitly forbade the librarians from acquiring “works of fictitious character commonly called novels.”

This might seem Philistine by today’s standards, but this stipulation had as much to do with economic sense as the philosophy of Quaker “plainness.”   In the mid-19th century, most children left school at 14, and libraries were places driven young people could further their education without the assistance of a teacher. The Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie, who arrived in Pittsburgh with his family at age 11, worked as a “bobbin boy” in a mill for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for a meager $1.20 per week. Unable to attend school, Carnegie petitioned a local subscription library for access during his precious hours off.   He was turned away. Not only could he not afford the $2 subscription fee, but also it was only open to local apprentices, not to the general public, let alone millworkers. Incensed, the teenaged Carnegie wrote the local Pittsburgh paper about his treatment. The library relented, and let the immigrant boy into the stacks. Carnegie eventually got a job as secretary/telegraph operator for Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas A. Scott, and went on to be America’s most successful steel producer.  In his retirement, Carnegie would donate $60 million of his fortune to the construction of almost 1,700 public libraries throughout the United States. Many continue to serve their communities to this day.

When, in the wake of the violent Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, he was asked why he gave so generously to libraries, but refused to increase his workers’ wages, he retorted: “If I had raised your wages, you would have spent that money by buying a better cut of meat or more drink for your dinner. But what you needed, though you didn’t know it, was my libraries and concert halls. And that’s what I’m giving to you.”

In 1853, the same year Scott hired the young Carnegie to work at the PRR, the Germantown Quaker Alfred Cope donated funds for a permanent library that could be used by the students Germantown Friends School and members of the surrounding community.  Previously, GFS’s book collection was squeezed into the meetinghouse’s cloakroom.  The reading list was quite serious. Among its 200 or so books were George Fox’s Journal, the eight-volume The Friends Library, Piety Promoted, and Penn’s Rise and Progress. Readers who took out a book for more than two weeks were fined twelve-and-a-half cents a week.

Salvation for Germantown Friends’ library came in the form of Alfred Cope. Heir to a Philadelphia shipping fortune, he never entered the family business due to frail health.  His father Thomas Pim Cope was founder of the Cope Line, which operated a fleet of transatlantic sailing packets between Philadelphia in Liverpool.  Like New York’s Black Ball Line, the Cope Line introduced the revolutionary idea of regularly scheduled departures.  Previously, ships waited until their holds were full until setting sail. This practice, while saving merchants money in the short term, left passengers and merchants waiting for days or even weeks. The Cope Line turned the old business model on its head, making passengers and merchants tailor their schedules around the shipping line’s The vagaries of wind and weather made regularly scheduled arrival times impossible until the advent of steam-powered transatlantic liners in the 1840s.  During the Cope Line’s six decades of existence, the business made the Cope family one of Philadelphia’s richest clans.  Henry Cope, another son of Thomas, took his inheritance and purchased 55 acres on Germantown’s Washington Lane.  Named for the Cope family’s ancestral village in England, the Cope estate is now the Awbury Arboretum.

Awbury Arboretum, intersection of Washington Lane and Ardleigh Street, June 1, 1956.

In 1857, Alfred Cope purchased a building on Germantown Avenue to house new classrooms for GFS, as well for the now-800 volume library. The books had previously been rather unceremoniously shoved into the Meetinghouse’s ladies cloakroom.  Fifteen years later, the chronically-ill Cope made his final gift: $13,000 to erect a purpose-built home for the Friends Free Library, which would be open to both students of the school and the wider Germantown community. The new library opened its doors in 1874, its shelves lined with 5,634 books: 1,500 children’s books, 25 Friends volumes, 262 science books, and 238 biographies.   Yet when setting up the trust that would fund the acquisition of new books, the Cope family inserted an important stipulation for this public-private library: no fiction, except for children’s books.

The newly-appointed librarian William Kite vigorously defended the stipulations set forth in the Cope Trust, and according to one account, “the factory girl who tended a spinning jenny, the messenger boy, the studious young man with notebook, he found something for them all, even for the rowdies who plagued him by coming in droves and asking fot tracts which he knew they would not read.”

Within a century of its founding, however, the Friends Free Library realized that to stay culturally current, it had to find creative ways to acquire works of fiction — in the interest of the community and the students of Germantown Friends School.

Interior of the Friends Free Library , 1881. Courtesy of the Germantown Friends School Archives.

Steven Ujifusa, a Philadelphia-based historian, is the author of Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship (Simon & Schuster 2018).  He has appeared on National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning, and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award for Non-Fiction.  His first book, A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States, was named by The Wall Street Journal as one of the ten best non-fiction books of 2012.


Bill Koons, “A Short History of the Friends’ Free Library,” Collection of Germantown Friends School.

“Friends Free Library of Germantown, 1848-1948, Some Notes in Retrospect, Collection of Germantown Friends School.

Susan Stamberg, “How Andrew Carnegie Turned His Fortune Into a Library Legacy,” NPR, August 1, 2013., accessed August 16, 2018.

“Our History,”, accessed August 21, 2018.