New York Public Library – Oddities and Curiosities

New York Public Library

Work on the New York Public Library began in 1899 and required six times more marble than the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Chamber of Commerce combined. Upon its completion in 1911, the New York Public Library was the largest marble building ever built in the United States.

The NYPL captivates and consistently astounds us. It’s a treasure chest of some wild and wacky knickknacks and to some astonishingly rare artifacts. Below are some of our favorites!

  • One of the most valuable items contained in the library is a rare 1450’s Gutenberg Bible. The Lenox copy on display, printed on paper, is the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States in 1847. James Lenox’s European agent issued instructions for New York that the officers at the Customs House were to remove their hats on seeing it – since it was an honor and privilege to view a Gutenberg Bible.

  • The “Wicked Bible,” aka The Adulterous Bible or The Sinners’ Bible. This King James edition Bible was printed in London in 1631 by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas. The word “not” was omitted from the prohibition on adultery – published as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Baker and Lucas were deprived of their printing license and fined £300 (equivalent to approximately $61,000 in 2020). Oops!

  • The Sun by Harry Crosby, measuring one inch tall by three-quarters of an inch wide, is one of the smallest books in the collections.

  • On the contrary, The Birds of America by John James Audubon is one of the largest books in the collections, measuring 39 inches tall by 26 inches wide and weighs 61 pounds!

Some of the oddest things in the NLPL collections

  •  Charles Dickens’ favorite letter-opener – the ivory shaft is topped with the embalmed paw of his beloved cat, Bob, claws and all.

  •  Fragments of the skull of poet Percy Bysshe Shelly can be found displayed and matted on cardboard in Room 319.

  •  Locks of hair from Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, and Wild Bill Hickok.

  •  The death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings.

  •  The cane Virginia Woolf left on the riverbank the day she committed suicide.

  •  Over 40,000 restaurant menus – from 1850 to present – are logged in the Library archives; chefs, novelists, and researchers heavily use the collection.

Fun facts

  •  It took 20 tons of coal each day to heat the library in the early years.

  •  The marble that didn’t meet the library’s architects’ high standards was used in other contemporary buildings, including Harvard Medical School.

  •  After the Pearl Harbor attack, the most valuable manuscripts and volumes in the library’s collection were relocated to bank vaults around New York City.

  •  Norbert Pearlroth, the researcher for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! found all the information for the newspaper feature using the vast collection in the Library’s Main Reading Room. He was at the library almost daily, and he sat at the same table for 52 years, from 1923 to 1975.

  •  Originally named Lord Lennox and Lady Astor, (even though they are both males), Mayor Fiorello La Guardia nicknamed the Library Lions Patience and Fortitude in the 1930s because he felt New Yorkers needed to possess these qualities to survive the Great Depression.

  •  The library is featured in dozens of films, including “Sex and the City,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Spider-Man,” and “Ghostbusters.”

  •  Since 1987, the original Winnie–the-Pooh and his friends — Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger — have bee

Available to the public for viewing and nearly 400,000 e-books to download – When you visit, it’s easy to pick up a library card to have access to the library’s digital collections and e-books from the comfort of your home – wherever that may be.

Free Tours of the New York Public Library

I hope these fun facts about the New York Public Library whet your appetite for a visit the next time you’re in NYC. For even more in-depth information about the history of this library, be sure to check out the free docent-led tours at 11 am and 2 pm on Monday through Saturdays. Tours are available on a first-come basis, are limited to 25 people, and meet at the reception desk in Astor Hall (to the left as you enter the library).

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