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Seamen's Societies

Starting in the eighteenth century, many seafaring countries (Great Britain, France, United States and more) confronted the problem of sailors who, upon return from a voyage at sea, had little or no means to sustain themselves in food, shelter or clothing. A number of "societies" were created along religious or philanthropic lines, to render assistance. In general terms they all provided "homes" in major ports, with goals of religious conversion, literacy, temperance and more; many supplied reading material, libraries, to ships leaving harbour; a few mounted expeditions of discovery and evangelism. Some still exist, but many have closed over the last fifty years, given the rise in governmental assistance and better pay for sailors. Some have reorientated their structure towards the health and welfare of seafarers, for example, the Seafarers Hospital Society in the UK, while others specialize in hot-lines and mental health.

One in particular, the American Seamen’s Friend Society, was well known for its lirarian activities:

American Seamen’s Friend Society

The Society adopted a constitution on January 11, 1826, but was not completely organized until May 5, 1828, when officers and trustees were first chosen. The Society was formally incorporated in April, 1833. The constitution stated the objects of the Society to be “To improve the social and moral condition of seamen, by uniting the efforts of the wise and good in their behalf; by promoting in every port boarding houses of good character, savings banks, register offices, libraries, museums, reading rooms and schools; and also the ministrations of the gospel, and other religious blessings.”

In organizing the American Seamen’s Friend Society, it was proposed to improve the conditions of seamen and bring them into the enjoyment of the same domestic comforts and the same advantages for religious improvement that other men in other walks of life enjoyed. To this end it was proposed to encourage individuals in whom confidence could be place to keep good boarding houses, to provide register offices, reading rooms and libraries and to establish savings banks and schools, This program was to be accompanied “with frequent prayer meetings, the distribution of bibles, tracts and magazines and with visiting from house to house and from ship to ship.”

The American Seamen’s Friend Society early opened three sailor’s boarding houses and in 1842 established the first Sailor’s Home at 190 Cherry Street near the East River front, which provided living accommodations for 300 seamen and continued in operation until 1903, when the building was razed to make way for the Manhattan Bridge. It was replaced by the Society in 1908 with the Sailor’s Home and Institute at the corner of West and Jane Streets, North River, at a cost of $300,000. “Institute” was added to the title, “Sailor’s Home” to indicate the new departure in welfare work for seamen.

Twenty years later, the trustees of the three societies, conducting work for seamen along the North River front, began discussions concerning the construction of a new seamen’s house in which all three might cooperate. It seemed to their trustees foolish and wasteful to appeal to the public for the support of each when probably a larger and better work would be done through cooperative effort. After many conferences, the American Seamen’s Friend Society and the Y.M.C.A. of New York City executed an agreement on October 24, 1928 for a new Seamen’s House to be erected at 11th Avenue and 20th Street, North River.

The new building was dedicated at a service in which representatives of the three organizations took part on November 4, 1931.

The providing of libraries for seamen on ships and on shore constituted one of the paramount objectives of the Society from very early days. As early as 1837, loan libraries were placed by the Society on American vessels sailing from New York. The American Seamen’s Friend Society began, in a systematic way, in March 1859, to place loan libraries on board American vessels sailing from Boston and New York City. A record has been kept of all the libraries sent out. The annual report of the Society for the year ending March 31, 1930 records that the whole number of libraries sent to sea since 1859 was 13,352 and that 16,688 had been refitted and reshipped, an aggregate of 30,040 libraries.

The cost of the libraries, which at first was $10, then $20, an then $25, was met by contributions from donors. Each library consisting of some 40 volumes was placed in a stout wooden case with a hinged door which could be locked and when opened, gave the appearance of a small bookcase. Each library bore a plate giving the donor’s name. They were placed on board ship by the Ship’s Visitor who in the course of time became well known along the waterfront.

One of the objectives specified in the Society’s constitution was the promotion of savings banks. For many years the building of the Seamen’s Bank for Savings on Wall and Pearly Streets housed the head office of the Society.

The American Seamen’s Friend Society closed its New York office and retired its Chaplain in 1976. Ten years later it officially went out of existence.



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Revised: 10 August 2014