19th-Century Prison Library Book Catalogs

face of a prisoner

Nineteenth-century prison libraries occasionally published catalogs of the books that they held. Those catalogs, complied in the Prison Book Dataset, show that nineteenth-century U.S. prison libraries had diverse book holdings, including recent best-sellers and publicly controversial books.

Book Catalogs Included in Prison Library Book Dataset

yearprison library book list for prison atbooks
1809Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Walnut St. Prison)76
1846Ossining, New York (Sing Sing State Prison for Women)39
1848Auburn, New York (State Prison)163
1848Dannemora, New York (Clinton State Prison)89
1848Ossining, New York (Sing Sing State Prison)760
1849Auburn, New York (State Prison)116
1850Auburn, New York (State Prison)101
1850Dannemora, New York (Clinton Prison)96
1850Ossining, New York (Sing Sing Prison)129
1853Dannemora, New York (Clinton Prison)94
1853Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (County Prison)371
1854Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (County Prison)315
1870San Quentin, California (State Prison)1296
1874Leavenworth, Kansas (State Prison)1501
1877Prison Association of New York, Library Book Recommendations1167

The Prison Book Dataset encompasses an important set of prison library catalogs, but not all U.S. nineteenth-century prison library catalogs. A national bibliography of American book catalogs, 1801-1875, includes some prison library catalogs, included some not covered in this workbook.^ The national bibliography of book catalogs does not include, however, prison library book lists published in reports of prison inspectors. Prison inspectors’ books lists are particularly valuable because they often include the prices for the enumerated books. Those prices are included in the dataset when they exist in the source.

Sources differed in listing by title, by item, or by volume. Different items could represent multiple copies of a single, multi-volume title. The database includes entries as listed in the source, with some exceptions noted below. If the entry explicitly mentions a number of volumes, the number of volumes has been recorded in a separate volume field. In some cases, an entry includes a volume identifier for a entry that represents one volume in a multi-volume set.

Book classification depends on the understanding of knowledge and purpose of the catalog at a particular historical time.^ We have included book class headings as they have existed in the sources. In addition, to enable consistent, unified analysis across the catalogs, we have constructed an additional unified book classification.

Relevant dataset: prison library book catalog records, 1809-1877 (Prison Book Dataset)


Notes on individual prison book catalogs

Walnut St. Prison in Philadelphia, PA (1809)

The Philadelphia Prison Society sent books to the penitentiary of the Walnut St. Prison in 1809. The book list is available from Teeters (1965) and Coyle (1987), with the later providing slightly less detail. The book list gives book “name” (author and/or title, some indication of number of volumes), number of copies (with some information about sets), and total cost corresponding to the name. We’ve calculated price on a per volume basis, taking into account data on volumes per set, copies, and total cost. In the database, we have repeated records to represent the number of copies indicated in the source.

The book price data helps to understand what the books were. The median price per volume among the books purchased was $0.625. Pilgrim’s Progress cost $0.625, while More’s Cheap Repository cost $0.50 per volume. The 24 copies of “Pratter” cost $0.20 per volume. This relative low price suggests that “Prattter” was old, or current and popular. There’s no evidence of a popular publication entitled “Pratter” in Philadelphia in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Cheap Repository was probably published in London, which supports an English source for the cheap, non-religious texts. “Sacred Biography, Hunter” is listed as 1 copy at $5.83. If this were a one-volume item, then the price per volume would be unreasonably high. Later evidence indicates that this work was printed in a five-volume set. We assume this set had five volumes, with a reasonable per volume price of $1 1/6.

The prison at Walnut St. apparently included both short-term and long-term prisoners. In 1790, sixteen cells for solitary confinement (“penitentiary cells”) were added to the Walnut St. jail. The books purchased in 1809 were probably for long-term prisoners in the Walnut St. prison.

Sing Sing Women’s Prison, state prison of NY (1846)

Titles mentioned in articles and investigation of controversy about the methods and actions of Eliza M. Farnham, keeper of the female department of the prison. See Report of the Committeee of Investigation, Sing Sing – Female Prison, Docs Senate NY, 69’th Session (1846) v. 1, n. 16, and Lewis (1965).

Auburn, Clinton, and Sing Sing, state prisons of NY, lists 1848-1853

The New York State legislature passed on May 13, 1846 an act creating a literature fund that provided money for New York state prisons to buy books for convicts. The first few reports of the newly appointed inspectors of the state prisons of New York included lists of books purchased. The lists typically contained the name of the agent from which the books were purchased, the names of the books (title, occasionally with author), number of volumes, price per volume, and total price. The first inspectors’ report also included a catalog of the prison library of Sing Sing. The men’s and women’s prisons at Sing Sing had separate libraries. The catalog provided apparently was the catalog for the prison library in the men’s prison.

We searched for catalogs in the prison inspectors’ reports for 1848-1854, as printed in the documents of the NY Assembly and Senate. More careful search may reveal lists that we missed. In addition, the Prison Association of New York collected catalogs of the prison libraries at Auburn, Clinton, and Sing Sing, and described them as appended to one of the Prison Association’s annual reports.^ The catalogs, however, apparently were not printed with the report. These catalogs may be in the papers of the Prison Association of New York, now called the Correctional Association of New York.

Available lists (all purchase lists for year except 1848 Sing Sing catalog)

  • 1848, Auburn, Clinton, and Sing Sing (library catalog for the Sing Sing men’s prison). Source: First Annual Report of the Inspectors of State Prisons, Docs. Senate NY, no. 30, Jan. 29, 1949, pp. 156-58, 338-9, 258-78.
  • 1849, Auburn. Source: 2’nd Annual Report, Prison Inspectors, Docs. Ass., v. 1, no. 16 (1850), pp. 49-50.
  • 1850, Auburn, Clinton, Sing Sing. Source: 3’rd Annual Report, Prison Inspectors, Docs. Senate, v. 1, no. 13 (1851), pp. 91-3, 309-11, 219-22.
  • 1853, Clinton. Source: 5’th Annual Report, Prison Inspectors, Docs. Senate, v. 1, no. 30 (1853) pp. 178-81.

Library of the Philadelphia County Prison, 1853, 1854

A catalog of books in the library in 1853, and a catalog of books added to the library in 1854. Entries are by volume. The first list includes the number of pages in each volume. Both lists are printed together in, Catalogue of the Books in the Library of the Philadelphia County Prison (Philadelphia: 1855).

California State Prison at San Quentin, 1870

Classified library catalog. We classified miscellaneous works, which appear to be additions to the library. Books are listed by title. Catalogue of the State Prison Library of the State of California, San Quentin (Sacramento: D. W. Gelwicks, State Printer, 1870).

Kansas State Prison at Leavenworth, 1874

Classified library catalog. Books listed by volume. Catalog and Rules Governing the Kansas Prison Library (Leavenworth: John C. Ketcheson, Book and Job Printer, 1874).

Prison Association of New York, Recommendations, 1876

The 32’nd Annual Report of the Prison Association of New York states:

In their efforts to supply reading for prisoners, the local committees, as well as the prison authorities, have continually felt a want which every father of a large family or master of a great school would experience in deciding upon the most useful books that are accessible and entirely fit for the minds of the readers for whom he has to provide. It has become a duty of the corresponding secretary to cause such a catalogue to be prepared and classified, to be supplied to prison officers and the local committees of this Association, accompanied with a memorandum to aid in the safe-keeping and best use of books by readers and by the persons in charge.

… The practice of supplying prisoners with books and papers which recount the exploits of criminals and the records of criminal trials, is pernicious. Elizabeth Fry, in the midst of a group of Newgate prisoners who listen to her instructive reading, presents an example now imitated in many jails and prisons.^

The Prison Association’s 32’nd Annual Report included the prison library book catalog that the Prison Association sponsored. That catalog was also printed separately as Catalogue and Rules for Prison Libraries to aid in the Suitable Selection and Economical Maintenance of Reading Matter in the Prisons and Jails (Albany: The Argus Company, Printers, 1877). Books are listed by title. It includes a rating of “relative merits and usefulness.” Other lists of books recommended for prison libraries were subsequently compiled in 1916, 1933, and 1939. Here’s some data from the 1933 prison library book recommendations.

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