Every great institution has a beginning, and the Brooklyn Museum’s origins were not in a cabinet of curiosities, or the art-filled drawing room of a Heights founding family. The Museum’s beginnings were in a small library, called the Apprentice’s Library.
It was incorporated on November 24, 1824, for the purposes of “forming a repository of books, maps, pictures, drawing apparatus, models of machinery, tools and implements, all collected for enlarging knowledge in literature, science and art, and thereby improving the condition of mechanics, manufacturers, artisans and others.” It was the first free library established in Brooklyn.
The Library found a permanent home on the corner of Cranberry and Henry streets, where a new building was erected, with much pomp and Masonic ceremonial splendor. The cornerstone was laid by the famous General Lafayette himself at this ceremony.
The idea and the funding for the Apprentice’s Library came from Mr. Augustus Graham. He and his brother John, were born in Scotland, and came to this country to seek their fortune. They found it in the manufacturer of white lead, a highly refined form of lead used in the production of hundreds of products. White lead made both of them extremely rich, and both brothers became philanthropists of the first order.
In 1851, Augustus donated $30,000 to kick start the building of Brooklyn’s first hospital, built on Raymond Street in Fort Greene, near the Brooklyn Jail. His was to be the largest single donation. John also donated, along with others, but it was Augustus who ceremonially broke ground with the first shovel of earth.
John Graham may also be a familiar name to Clinton Hill residents as the founder of the Graham Home for Old Ladies, on Washington Ave, a cause Augustus also supported financially.
Apprentice Library Charter via Brooklyn Museum
The Apprentice’s Library was a unique institution, dedicated to educating a group of people who may not have had any formal education at all. Evening classes were soon instituted to teach anyone of any age reading, writing, grammar, geography, architectural and mechanical drawing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, geometry, landscape and figure drawing.
The tuition for these classes, which included kerosine and firewood, was $3 per 12-week duration. Books and materials would be furnished at wholesale prices. They accepted installment payments.
By 1843, the Library had outgrown its building on Cranberry St, as well as its name, and the Brooklyn Institute was incorporated. An organization called the Brooklyn Lyceum of Natural History had a building on Washington Street, near Concord Street, which was languishing from lack of funds and interest. (Washington Street became Cadman Plaza East, so the Lyceum was located on the eastern end of Cadman Plaza, near the Adams Street entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.)
Augustus Graham bought the building for the Brooklyn Institute, and they moved in that year. At his death in 1851, Graham bequeathed the Institute enough money to insure its continued expansion. He allotted money for the general fund, for the Natural History Department, the support of a school of design, a department of fine arts, and the annual lecture to be delivered yearly to all, free of charge, on the “Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God.”
This promise was kept for many years, with great gratitude. By 1867, the Institute was enlarged and improved, and had a library and reading room, plus other rooms on the first floor, a lecture hall with music gallery and stage on the second, and a picture gallery, artists’ studios and school rooms on the third floor, as well as more exhibit space and department rooms in the basement.
Brooklyn Institute, 1910. Photo via Library of Congress
It is important to remember the importance of lectures and classes to mid-19th-century people. Going to a lecture hall was both educational and entertaining. Lectures were not usually expensive, and for the majority of the public, the topics could be quite exotic, exposing them to the wonders of the scientific and natural world, showing them things and places they would never see in person.
By 1853, the Institute had an Arts Department, a Literary, Dance, and Mechanical Department. Lectures were given on health, drawing, French, music, spiritualism, horticulture, natural history, and much more. By the late 1880’s, the Brooklyn Institute had grown tremendously, with a host of Departments, and a lecture schedule that would do any modern booking agency proud.
Topics in 1888 included: the arctic, volcanoes, the chemistry of food, glaciers of Alaska and the Age of Ice, the world of the mapmaker in 1450, mountains, Yellowstone Park, human evolution, acoustics of the human voice, Florentine Renaissance in art, origin and development of Greek architecture, and an exhibit of the Department of Microscopy featuring 60 microscopes for attendees to examine.
The Institute now had formal Departments of Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Entomology, Geology, Natural History, Microscopy, Domestic Science, Physics, Zoology, Music, Art and Engineering. In 1889, they added Architecture, Political and Economic Science, Photography, Astronomy, and Archeology.
They were joined in 1890 by Philology (speech study), Geography, Electricity, Mathematics, Painting, Bacteriology, and Psychology. All of these departments, and I know I’ve forgotten a few from the list, had research materials, exhibits, collections, artifacts, dedicated literary materials and more.
Some needed lab space, all needed lecture and office space. The three story building on Washington and Concord was bursting at the seams. The Brooklyn Institute desperately needed an new building. A very large new building……..
Butterfly exhibit at the Brooklyn Institute on Washington Street. Photo via Brooklyn Eagle
[Top illustration via Brooklyn Museum]
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