The Cornell Public Library
Ezra Cornell, the son of a farmer and potter, was a self-educated and self-made man. From his early years, he was interested in scientific and technical innovation. He devised a special plow for laying telegraph cable underground and later designed glass insulators for stringing cable overhead. He struggled financially for most of his life until 1855, when the consolidation into Western Union of the small local telegraph companies in which he had invested gave his interests 150,000 shares of stock. In 1864, he wrote in his old “cyphering book”:
The yearly income which I realize this year will exceed One Hundred Thousand dollars - My last quarterly dividend on stock in the Western Union Telegraph Co was $35,000, July 20, 64….
My greatest care now is how to spend this large income, to do the most good to those who are properly dependent on [me], to the poor and to posterity.
Cornell had long been interested in education, both for his own children and more broadly. He helped organize a Farmers’ Club, with an agricultural reading room in Ithaca; he served as president of the Tompkins County Fair, and of the New York State Agricultural Society. Ezra Cornell had always had an enormous respect for books and for their influence. He purchased books for his family, even when he had little money. In 1863, he proposed to build and endow a public library for Ithaca. He had entered politics, and in the New York State Senate, he met Andrew Dickson White when the bill for the incorporation of the library was referred to White’s Committee on Literature (Education). At the time, Cornell was the oldest member of the Senate and White the youngest.
Ezra Cornell kept the first book he ever owned, and in 1859, he presented it to the Ithaca Farmers Club library. The book eventually was given to the Cornell Library, and is now on permanent deposit in the Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
In 1866, he annotated it:
Price one dollar. This is the first book I ever owned. It was offered by a pedler at my Fathers house in De Ruyter Madison Co NY. I persuaded my Mother to buy it for me. She had no money, and to oblige me she picked up paper rags about the house to make up the price of it. I read the book with interest, but when Jackson was a candidate in 1828 for the Presidency, I opposed him and voted for Adams. I favored a protective tariff.
Oct. 6. 66
That book is:
S. Putnam Waldo. Memoirs of Andrew Jackson, Major-General in the Army of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Division of the South. Hartford: J. & W. Russell, 1819.
Ezra Cornell, ca. 1865, when the charter for the Cornell University was signed into law.
Ezra Cornell's First Book
Ezra Cornell annotated the first book he ever owned, which was S. Putnam Waldo's Memoirs of Andrew Jackson, Major-General in the Army of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Division of the South. Hartford: J. & W. Russell, 1819.
Cornell went on to become an avid reader.
Bill for books purchased by Ezra Cornell from Mack, Andrus, & Woodruff, Publishers, Booksellers, and Stationers, December 28, 1839.