Today we often assume all our “public” institutions are the product of government, created by and dependent on it. But a careful look at the nineteenth century reveals that many of those public institutions were in fact created and sustained by innovative private philanthropy. Henry Shaw, for example, pioneered public parks in St. Louis, while Enoch Pratt virtually invented the public library when he founded Baltimore’s branch system. The imaginative giving of these two outstanding donors is worth pondering by any philanthropist eager to improve his community.
Henry Shaw Makes St. Louis Greener
Henry Shaw (1800-1889) was so successful at business he was able to retire at 40. He spent his next decade wandering around Europe, wondering what his purpose in life was. While on a trip to England in 1851, Shaw decided to become a philanthropist. Throughout his career, Shaw had loved plants, and so he decided to express this love by creating America’s first public garden. The particular inspiration occurred during that sojourn in England, when he went to Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire and an estate renowned for its luxuriant garden. According to biographer Thomas Dimmock, Shaw said to himself, “Why may I not have a garden too? I have enough land and money for something of the same sort, in a smaller way.”
According to biographer Fr. William Barnaby Flaherty, Shaw’s first announcement of his plans came in 1853, when he told realtor Richard Smith Elliott “that he intended to have a Botanical Garden, with proper accessories, free for [St. Louis’s] citizens and strangers to visit.” In 1856 Shaw began the task. He wrote to the world’s leading expert in botany, Sir William Jackson Hooker, head of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Hooker was enthusiastic about Shaw’s idea and suggested Shaw hire a local expert, Dr. George Englemann, a gynecologist who had a substantial collection of plants. Englemann agreed to be an advisor and enlisted the help of America’s leading botanist, Harvard professor Asa Gray. In a letter to Shaw, Sir William contrasted England’s governmental support of botany with Shaw’s example of being “a public-spirited private gentleman . . . such a gift to one’s country, anyone may glory in.”
Shaw and Englemann spent the next two years acquiring plants and books and landscaping his garden, which was completed and opened in 1859. The garden emerged unscathed from the Civil War and kept on expanding.
In 1867, Shaw gave his second major gift to the city of St. Louis. He realized the city had several small parks but no large one; so he donated 277 acres of land, 20,000 trees, and the expertise of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s landscape architects to create Tower Grove Park, which opened in 1870. Shaw had seen the great parks of England and France, Fr. Flaherty writes, and “wanted recreation for all, not for the wealthy alone, with broad drives, shady walks, beaches, ponds, space for games, music stands, and evergreen circles.”
Shaw never married and rarely left St. Louis. He spent his days inspecting his garden and his park, noting the pleasure they provided the people. Dimmock gives an example of Shaw’s intricate knowledge of his garden. One time he escorted a woman through the garden, telling her the Latin names of all the rare plants in the garden’s collection. “I cannot understand, sir,” the woman said, “how you are able to remember all those different and difficult names.”
Shaw bowed to the woman and replied, “Madam, did you ever know a mother who could forget the names of her children? These plants and flowers are my children. How can I ever forget them?”
When Shaw died in 1889, the Missouri Botanical Garden boasted a staff of 30 and had become one of America’s greatest gardens, a distinction it retains to this day. Shaw was buried in his garden, the first—and by the terms of his will, the only—person to be interred there.
Enoch Pratt Offers Baltimore Free Education
For most of his career, Enoch Pratt (1808-1896) was a quiet, unassuming merchant. But at the age of 70, he decided to make a gift to the city of Baltimore, which had made him wealthy. He chose to give books—and created the first modern public library system.
Even before Pratt established his first library, he had achieved considerable business success and been generous to his fellow Baltimoreans. “When it came to charity and civic welfare,” observes historian Albert K. Weinberg, “Pratt accepted every responsibility that came to him.” He was a trustee of the Peabody Institute, a leading music school, and also helped to endow a home for poor black children. In 1877, Pratt gave his first major gift: $50,000 to help create a statue of George Washington in Baltimore’s largest park.
Pratt’s thoughts turned to library construction. Baltimore in 1880 had very few libraries for the average citizens. The Mercantile Library was available to the well-to-do. Sunday schools and fraternal societies had small collections. But there was no public library where ordinary people could go to study and learn new skills.
In 1881, Pratt bought a plot of land on Mulberry Street and started building. He kept his plans secret; he even told his good friend, Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe, that he was going to use the land to create an institution for scientific research. “Mr. Pratt had his own way of doing things,” Latrobe later recalled.
In January 1882, Pratt wrote a letter to Mayor Latrobe revealing that he intended to give the city of Baltimore a central library, five branch libraries, and an endowment of $833,833 to enable the city to spend $50,000 a year in interest income maintaining the library. His goal was “the free circulation of the books of a large and ever-growing Library among the people of the whole City.”
Pratt’s gift was quite innovative. Only Boston had a public library with even one branch, and now Baltimore was to have five branches! But it took three years for the city to hire a librarian, an assistant librarian, and to choose clerks among 1,500 applicants. Books began to be acquired in 1885, and the library opened in 1886.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library quickly became a popular Baltimore institution. When the library opened, Baltimore’s most famous author-to-be, H.L. Mencken, was six. He had a card to the Hollins Street branch by the time he was nine and, as he later quipped, “began an almost daily harrying of the virgins at the delivery desk.” (Mencken was so grateful to the library that he willed them his papers, now kept in the library’s Mencken Room.)
Pratt was a very active donor. He would routinely have dinner at three or four o’clock, says biographer Richard H. Hart, and then go to his library, spending several hours a day inspecting the staff and making sure everyone was doing their job. He would even personally vouch for children signing up for their first library cards. “There was no detail too slight, no expenditure too trivial to escape his scrutiny,” Hart writes. “If the members of the staff occasionally felt their nerves wearing a bit thin under Mr. Pratt’s keen blue eye, they could not fail to be touched by his interest in them as individuals and in all the details of their work.” An 1896 article in Harper’s adds that “Mr. Pratt delights in watching the supply wagons of his library sashaying through the streets of Baltimore like express wagons during the Christmas season.”
Inspiring Andrew Carnegie
Pratt’s philanthropic ideas were a major influence on Andrew Carnegie, who went on to underwrite hundreds of public libraries across the country. In 1890, Carnegie, who at the time had only given money for one public library, went on a tour of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and its five branches, guided by Pratt himself. “This is Mr. Carnegie from Pittsburgh, come down to see my library,” Pratt told the library staff. “He wants to get some points on the big library he plans to build in Pittsburgh. Now show Mr. Carnegie how the people get their cards.”
A grateful Carnegie sent Pratt a barrel of whiskey after the tour. Pratt said later that “it was doubtless my example in founding the Pratt Library that set Mr. Carnegie in thinking of the advantage of these free libraries.”
Carnegie did admire Pratt, and in his landmark article “The Gospel of Wealth” he said Pratt was a role model for other philanthropists. “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. “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.”
Enoch Pratt made one more posthumous gift to the people of Baltimore. When he died in 1896, he left $2 million of his $2.5 million estate to the Sheppard Asylum, a pioneering insane asylum located just outside Baltimore. Now known as the Sheppard Pratt Health System, the institution remains over a century later Maryland’s largest mental hospital.
The legacies of both Pratt and Shaw should expand our idea of what it means for an institution to be “public.” These two men should also stir up the imagination of donors who would like to blaze similar trails of public service through private-sector innovation. Our communities rely not only on the wealth generated by the private sector, but also on the entrepreneurial acumen that creative businessmen can employ to address unmet needs through wise giving.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Great Philanthropists, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable. This article is adapted from his Manhattan Institute study By Their Bootstraps: The Lives of Twelve Gilded Age Social Entrepreneurs.