Places that Matter

General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen

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Library, Stephen Amiga
Library, Stephen Amiga
Sculpture, Stephen Amiga
Entrance, Elis Shin 2012
Entrance, Elis Shin 2012
Charitable organization founded in 1785 by skilled craftsmen that offers cultural, educational, and social services to members and their families
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Place Matters Profile

Founded in 1785 by the city's skilled workingmen for mutual aid and betterment, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen has served New Yorkers of ordinary means for over two centuries. The modern incarnation of the society consists of several interdependent sections: the Library and Special Collections, the Small Press Center, and the Mechanics Institute--a tuition-free technical school for adults working in industries related to the building trades. The library was founded in 1820 and is the second oldest subscription library in the city. Rates for public membership are very modest, and you'll find things here that even the New York Public Library doesn’t have.

Overview

The General Society was created as a charitable effort to provide cultural, educational, and social services to members and their families. The society keeps alive a tradition of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next that follows the model of artisan culture prevalent during the years of the society’s founding. These were the tumultuous years that followed the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the United States. In November 1785, twenty-two "mechanics and tradesmen"--men who worked, say, as independent master cabinetmakers, shipbuilders, marble carvers, and shoemakers--gathered at Walter Heyer’s Tavern on Pine Street in downtown Manhattan to found a society for mutual aid. These were tough economic times, and the men hoped to help each other and the widows and orphans of their brethren. They also hoped to improve their situation by advocating for politics and laws favorable to the trades and manufacturing, and by reminding elites that neither the city nor nation would prosper without artisan labor.

The historian Sean Wilentz writes that "a typical gathering at the Society's Mechanic Hall brought intense conversations. In a city where merchants and bankers were the most powerful social and political leaders, the activities of the society testified that artisans, too, were a resourceful and purposeful group.” In 1810, members of the General Society founded the Mechanics’ Bank, hoping to have better access to capital. In 1820, hundreds of artisans contributed their books and money to support the founding of the General Society’s Library for Apprentices, reinforcing the claim by master baker Thomas Mercein, president of the General Society in 1827 and a founder of the library, that mechanics were, as Wilentz quotes, “a body of men who do much in sustaining the prosperity of this Metropolis.”