Passion, pride and principle: the Mechanics’ Institute at 160

arm-hammer-vertOn December 4 at the bi-annual Members’ Meeting, I gave a talk on the founding of our Mechanics’ Institute and the strange but wonderful times that provided the impetus for its birth. The decision to found our Institute was formerly made on December 11, 1854 when two scores of men in the building trades met in the tax collector’s office to thrash out a plan to create a Mechanics’ Institute similar to ones that existed in the Eastern United States, Australia, and Great Britain.

From the beginning, the directors knew what sort of Institution they wanted:

  • A library with open stacks so all the books were accessible to the members
  • A game room where members could spread out their chess and checker boards
  • Classes that would stretch the mind and teach new skills
  • To be an organization that welcomed everyone regardless of race or gender
  • And to cost as little as possible

160 years later, I think our founders would be proud at what we’ve accomplished.

Our Mechanics’ Institute is one of the few surviving in the world that still operates on its original model of providing opportunities for educational advancement. It is one of the oldest libraries in the West and more importantly, one of the first truly “public” institutions of the San Francisco Bay Area. Today it is a thriving community enriched by its cultural events, amazing library, and vigorous chess program. It has our members who support it, to thank.

What will the Mechanics’ Institute be like in the coming decades? With vision, strong leadership, and your championship – only better! In honor of our 160th year, I challenge you to do three things:

  • Show the Institute to three of your friends – referrals is how we get most of our new members.
  • I ask that you give what you can to support our operations – your membership dues cover only 9% of our operating costs, meaning that it costs us $1000 per member per year to put on this show.
  • And above all, that you be just and fear not!

If you missed the lecture Passion, Pride, and Principle: The Birth of the Mechanics’ Institute 1851-1856, you can view the 4-part video here.  I start at minute 19. Many thanks is due to my friend Mike Duckworth for the care and attention he paid to the video’s production.

More lectures are planned – the next one will be on April 16 – Before the PPIE, The Mechanics’ Institute and the Development of San Francisco’s “Fair Culture” (1857–1909).


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