In case you missed it: the Mercantile Library

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The Winter issue of the Ohioana Quarterly focused on our good friend, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati.

This library is one of the gems in the crown of the Queen City. It was established in 1835, according to the feature story written by Ohioana board member Bryan Loar. Its founders were merchants and clerks, hence the name. These young men of the city, who could expect a prosperous future for themselves as well as Cincinnati, placed a premium on learning and so created a place and an opportunity.

Can you imagine what a haven the library must have been from the rush and press of business in 1835? Cincinnati was hardly a backwater since it was a significant river port on the Ohio, with trade and a thriving meat-packing industry sending out salted pork all over the country. And can you imagine the despair over not one but TWO fires it endured, the first in 1845 and the second in 1869? Fortunately, most of the volumes were saved in both instances. And in 1904, the Mercantile Library found a home it has stayed in ever since.

The building is, of course, lovely. It has plenty of natural light, comfortable chairs, wood book shelves and cabinets, and works of art both venerable and modern. And it has kept up with the times. There are 80,000 books in the collection and membership has grown from the original 45 to the current 2,500. There are discussion groups, literary and other events, and even e-books.

As Bryan says in the article, “The Mercantile Library continues to support personal improvement and the exploration of contemporary ideas through an adaptive and open space, a notable collection, inspiring art, and extraordinary programs.”

Good Luck and Bad Luck

March is a month when we remember fate and destiny. Or the lack of fate and destiny. Sometimes, things just happen.

March 15 is famous for being the Ides of March, or the middle of the month. It’s the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated by members of his senate. It’s memorable to the English-speaking world because of William Shakespeare’s play. So it’s because of a writer that we remember this particular assassination and feel the chill in our own bones as we look at the calendar.

Likewise, March is the month of St. Patrick’s Day. But before you go slinging about the phrase “the luck of the Irish” like it’s something to celebrate, realize the phrase is ironic. The Irish were considered an unlucky group of people because of the poverty they faced in the old country and the prejudice they faced in the new.

Luck also reminds us at Ohioana about two sons of our state: Eddie Rickenbacker (good luck) and George Armstrong Custer (the other kind).

In our collection, we have Rickenbacker’s own memoirs of his service during the Great War, Fighting the Flying Circus, which was published in 1919 by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. The book includes a handsome portrait of Colonel Rickenbacker in the front as well as a glossary of terms unfamiliar to the reading public at the time, including “joystick” and “zoom.” A biography in our collection is titled Rickenbacker’s Luck, and was written by Finis Farr and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1979. Rickenbacker was never injured in combat, and not seriously in a childhood attempt to fly a bicycle off of the roof of the family garage. So that’s good luck right there.

Neither luck nor heroism are associated with Custer. He’s regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a vainglorious fool with emphasis on the “vain” part. The 1970 film, Little Big Man probably has a lot to do with that perception. The general was portrayed as a complete creep (at best) by actor Richard Mulligan. The truth, as always, is somewhere else, a concept investigated by Nathaniel Philbrick in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the end, the only place left for Custer to find another way forward is in the land of alternate history, like the novel Custer’s Luck by Robert Skimin and William E. Moody, published by Herodias in 2000. Yes, the victor of Little Bighorn was elected president in 1880.

Strange days indeed. Be careful out there today, March 15, OK?