Enoch Pratt was one of nineteenth-century Maryland’s most prominent businessmen. Today he is perhaps best remembered for creating a system of free lending libraries in Baltimore—a pioneering effort that set a model for his contemporaries, not least among whom was Andrew Carnegie.
Enoch Pratt was born in 1808 to a respectable middle-class family in Massachusetts. He was the second of eight children born to Isaac Pratt and Naomi Keith. His father was a successful businessman who left farming to manage a sawmill, general store, and, later, a wholesale hardware business. Young Enoch learned to make nails at the little smithy in the Pratt’s family kitchen.
After completing his education at Bridgewater Academy, Enoch announced himself ready for a life of business. “I suggest I am old enough to do considerable business,” a 15-year-old Pratt wrote to a close family friend, Nahum Capen, postmaster of Boston. “My school will be out in a fortnight and I do not want to stay at home after it is out.” Capen helped young Enoch secure his first job: clerking at a wholesale hardware store. Pratt diligently saved his money, looking forward to the day when he could start his own business. At age 23, with just $150 to his name, Pratt opened a wholesale hardware business in Baltimore, the city he would call home for most of his life.
Pratt’s iron commission, Enoch Pratt and Brother (later Enoch Pratt and Keith), met with great success. As his fortune grew, Pratt expanded his portfolio, serving as vice president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad; president of the National Farmers’ and Planters’ bank of Baltimore; and controlling stockholder in the Maryland Steamboat Company. Pratt matched success in business with domestic felicity. In 1837, Pratt married Maria Louisa Hyde, daughter of Samuel G. and Catherine Hyde. It was a happy marriage, even though the couple was unable to have children of their own.
Pratt’s philanthropy began with gifts to his church. A faithful Unitarian, Pratt shouldered much of his church’s financial burdens—paying off significant debts, buying a new organ, and remodeling the church. For more than 40 years, Pratt served as a trustee of the church, and on occasion he served as a delegate to national Unitarian conferences.
Much of Pratt’s earlier philanthropy was similarly personal, escaping the notice of the larger public. It was a common practice, notes his biographer Richard Hart, for Pratt to come to the aid of hardworking young men “with money and good advice.” He was patron to sculptor Edward Sheffield Bartholomew, funding Bartholomew’s study abroad under Italian master Ferrero. Pratt purchased many of Bartholomew’s works and commissioned him to create busts and memorials throughout the city, perhaps most notably the statue of George Washington in Druid Hill Park, Baltimore’s largest city park.
Pratt created a superb free public library that became the finest in the country, inspiring other donors (including Andrew Carnegie) to likewise bring books and learning to everyday Americans.
Later in life, Pratt became more focused on his philanthropy, with the majority of his gifts centered on the city of Baltimore. In 1870, he donated Cheltenham, a 752-acre tract of land in Prince George’s county, to be used as a reform school for African-American boys. Pratt was president of the school’s board for several years, and would regularly hire men who had been trained at Cheltenham to work on the grounds at his country home, Tivoli.
Education was Pratt’s great, lifelong interest—but, like many self-made men of his era, he did not equate education with schooling. He wanted to support those who wanted to learn, but he realized that few working people could afford to take the time to study in a formal, structured environment. For these such aspiring autodidacts, he found an elegant solution: the free lending library.
Pratt expanded a school library in Massachusetts in 1865 (later known as the Pratt Free School), making the library free to all local citizens as well. He also served for four years as treasurer of the Peabody Institute; George Peabody himself called Pratt “one of the ablest financiers I have ever known.”
Pratt’s greatest philanthropic achievement, however, is in his establishment of a public library system in Baltimore. Enoch Pratt believed “a free circulating public library open to all citizens regardless of property or color” to be the greatest need in the city of Baltimore as it neared the close of the 19th century. With an endowment of $1,058,333, he intended to address precisely that need. In January 1882, he offered the library, its branches, and its endowment to the city.
“For fifteen years, I have studied the library question, and wondered what I could do with my money so that it would do the most good,” he explained. “I soon made up my mind that I would not found a college—for a few rich. My library shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.”
Pratt’s funding established a central library and four branches, and included an endowment, the interest of which would cover support and maintenance for the entire library system. Furthermore, his interest and involvement did not end when the central branch opened in January 1886. Pratt remained an actively involved donor who took great pride in his libraries and would frequently visit the branches. He personally escorted fellow philanthropist Andrew Carnegie on a tour of the central library in Baltimore.
Pratt’s final gift to his adoptive hometown was the majority of his estate to the Sheppard Asylum of Baltimore. Upon his death in 1896, he left a $2 million bequest (of his $2.5 million estate) to the asylum because he was so impressed with how the trustees had handled the Sheppard endowment. “They are the only Board of Trustees in Baltimore,” said Pratt, “who have carried out exactly the directions of the founder.” Pratt’s bequest expanded the pioneering mental hospital and helped make it, now the Sheppard Pratt Health System, the largest mental health institute in Maryland.
But Pratt’s greatest achievement may have been inspiring the work of other great philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie took great interest in the Pratt library system, which became a model for his own program of building free lending libraries in Pittsburgh and beyond. “Many free libraries have been established in our country, but none that I know of with such wisdom as the Pratt Library in Baltimore,” Carnegie wrote in “The Gospel of Wealth.” “By placing books within the reach of 37,000 people which they were anxious to obtain, Mr. Pratt has done more for the genuine progress of the people than has been done by the contributions of all the millionaires and rich people to help those who cannot or will not help themselves.”
- Richard Hart, Enoch Pratt: The Story of a Plain Man (Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1935)