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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

BAM’s Prehistory, Part 1: The Apprentices Library

This is the first in a series of four posts offering a historical narrative of what led to the founding of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1861. The story of BAM’s beginnings involves a convolution of 19th-century Brooklyn cultural institutions. While each has its own story, we hope you'll sense how deeply and profoundly interconnected almost all of today’s major Brooklyn institutions are. BAM could not be what it is today without its past and present relationships to the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and many others.  

The seeds of all of these institutions were planted in 1824, when the Apprentices Library opened in Brooklyn. In the early 19th century, Brooklyn was undergoing rapid change. Once a sleepy farm community, this suburb of bustling Manhattan was itself becoming more bustling, attracting entrepreneurial talent from the eastern seaboard and beyond. As Brooklyn’s economy grew, so did its primarily working class residents’ desire for culture and edification. A group of business leaders from across Brooklyn recognized this need, founding what would become the Apprentices Library. Instead of apprenticing under masters of trade, more and more of the working class were hiring themselves out as employees during the early 19th century, thus forgoing the apprentices’ traditional guidance and education. The Library’s goal was to offer the sort of education that factories and mills were not providing for their employees. Led in part by distiller and investor Augustus Graham, the Library was not merely a place to read books but to engage with lecturers on trades relevant to the working class, and to witness presentations on contemporary culture and the sciences.

Augustus Graham, by Charles Christian Heinrich Nahl, 1850
The Apprentices Library, while not the first cultural institution of Brooklyn, was the first major Brooklyn institution founded to address the cultural and educational needs of the working class. On July 4, 1825, a celebration was held for the opening of the Library’s new site at the corner of Cranberry and Henry Streets in Brooklyn Heights. General Lafayette, one of the most laurelled heroes of the American Revolution, came to Brooklyn to lay the cornerstone for the new building. As legend has it, a five-year-old Walt Whitman was among a group of school children attending the celebration. According to John Burroughs, Whitman’s literary disciple and biographer, Lafayette scooped up the young Whitman, and “pressing the child a moment to his breast, and giving him a kiss, handed him down to a safe spot in the excavation.”

It’s a particularly delicious image: a venerable revolutionary hero and a child who would come to champion in his poetry the working people of Brooklyn and America, together for a brief embrace as they sanction the institution that would later serve as a parent institution to almost every major Brooklyn cultural center for nearly 200 years.  

We are with you in Rockland, Walt Whitman

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