I recently received a research question that posed a bit of an unusual mystery. The question was why John Jacob Astor, a founder of the library, was listed as a benefactor on one of the Astor Hall marble columns not once, but twice.
The question sent me over to Astor Hall to investigate, where I found the first four benefactors listed as John Jacob Astor, William Backhouse Astor, James Lenox, and John Jacob Astor, in that order. Hmm, a mystery indeed.
At his death in 1848, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), a fur trader and businessman, left a large endowment for the creation of a public library. This $400,000 went to the founding of the Astor Library, which was opened in 1849 on Lafayette Street and would be combined with the Lenox Library in 1895. Using funding from Samuel Tilden, this new library system—the New York Public Library—brought together the Astor and Lenox collections, as well as several smaller local libraries. The main building at 42nd street and 5th avenue—the site of Astor Hall—was opened in 1911. A number of branch libraries would later be built by donations from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
So the John Jacob Astor at the top of the column in Astor Hall is clearly the first Mr. Astor.
But who was the second one listed?
The first issue of the NYPL Bulletin mentions early trustees of the Library, including William Backhouse Astor, whom you'll recall was benefactor #2 on the list,
"the son of the founder, was one of the first trustees of the Library...During his lifetime he gave to the corporation a plot of land...advanced money for the purchase of books, and added to the endowment. [His will] left to the Library an additional sum of $249,000, bringing his gifts up to a total of $450,000."
In addition to William, the first Mr. Astor had another son, John Jacob, who would have been the Second or Junior, but who was not significantly affiliated with the Library and has been largely left out of the history books.
Returning to the NYPL Bulletin, one finds yet another John Jacob Astor,
"In the third generation of the Astor family, John Jacob Astor, Jr., a son of William B. Astor, was for many years a diligent Trustee... During his lifetime he also presented to the Library an addition to its site...and gave largely for the purchase of books...and by his will he bequeathed to the corporation the sum of $450,000.
There was also a John Jacob Astor IV, who was one of the passengers who went down on the Titanic in 1912.
So which of the latter three John Jacob Astors was memorialized on the column in Astor Hall? Given his status as a Trustee and benefactor of the Library, I think it is safe to assume it was the original Mr. Astor's grandson, John Jacob Astor III (aka "Jr.") who lived from 1822-1890.
They certainly could have cleared up this confusion if they had entered dates on the column back in 1911!
As an aid to deciphering the male Astors, I include the following print from our Digital Gallery (click for a larger image):
Now, if anyone could tell me why James Lenox gets third billing, and Samuel Tilden doesn't even make the top five!
For more information on the history of the New York Public Library, see:
New York Public Library – History
Public libraries – New York (State) – New York –History – 20th century