The purpose of this note is to provide an introduction to the history of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) primarily for potential users of the N-YHS archival records. It is not intended to be a comprehensive narrative, but rather an overview aimed at orienting researchers as they navigate N-YHS's extensive records and their varied subject matter. For those looking for a more succinct note, see the entry for N-YHS in Kenneth T. Jackson, editor, Encyclopedia of New York City. There are also more in-depth histories of N-YHS in print and a bibliographic note is included at the end of this overview to suggest sources for more detailed background on N-YHS. Many of the finding aids for the individual record groups that constitute the N-YHS archives also include more detailed historical notes relevant to the particular group.
The New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) was founded on November 20, 1804. At the time, it was only the second state historical society in the young United States, preceded in 1791 by the Massachusetts Historical Society. John Pintard is recognized as the principal force arranging the founding meeting, held in the Picture Room of New York's City Hall. Eleven distinguished gentlemen attended the meeting, among them Egbert Benson, DeWitt Clinton, and Anthony Bleecker. Here they agreed to form themselves into a Society for the purpose of collecting and preserving "whatever may relate to the natural, civil or ecclesiastical [literary was added shortly afterward] History of the United States in general and of this State [New York] in particular." Over the course of the following year, the essentials of an organizational structure were put in place: a constitution, by-laws, officers, and a detailed public announcement of the organization's goals and a request for donations to its library and cabinet (i.e., museum objects). Additional members were also sought and by April 1806 membership totaled twenty-nine, all considered the original members of N-YHS. In 1809, the state legislature incorporated the New-York Historical Society, placing a now-archaic but distinctive hyphen in the name that has been retained through various charter amendments over two centuries.
For its first fifty years, N-YHS had no permanent home of its own, operating out of a series of six different rented or donated quarters. This presented a great deal of instability for the organization, as it confronted space shortages, sudden demands by owners to leave locations, the need to place collections in storage with other institutions or individuals, financial strain to make rent payments, and other such challenges. These challenges were eased, though not fully resolved, in 1841 when New York University invited N-YHS to move into rooms in a new building on Washington Square, a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two institutions. N-YHS remained at NYU until it acquired property of its own and constructed a building for itself in the mid-1850s.
Although constrained by space limitations in uncertain quarters, N-YHS began to build its collections immediately. Donations from members and others made up much of the collection, along with some purchases, such as that of John Pintard's library in 1809. In 1813, N-YHS published its first catalogue, which included over 4,000 books and pamphlets, plus newspapers, maps, prints, manuscripts, and oil portraits. In 1817, N-YHS moved into its third home, the New York Institution building, which it shared with other cultural institutions and where the availability of additional space prompted the organization to move more aggressively in collecting natural science and other cabinet objects. By 1849, the library had 15,000 books and pamphlets, plus thousands of maps, manuscripts, and artifacts. Use of these materials, though, was privileged; the library was open only to members, their guests, or those introduced or otherwise permitted access by a member.
"Preserving" materials related to history meant not only physically securing original documents but disseminating published versions of the content of those documents. From 1811 to 1830, N-YHS published five volumes in its first series of the Collections of the New-York Historical Society, which were compilations of narratives, accounts, histories, laws, and other historical documents, as well as discourses, catalogues, and other contemporary material. A decade later, a second series of the Collections was initiated in 1841, extending through four volumes, with the last published in 1859 in anticipation of the eventual start of a third series, funded through a Publication Fund.
N-YHS also sought other ways to preserve and celebrate historical memory, though the emphasis often seemed to be on the celebration in these cases. The first of these grand celebrations took place in September 1809, when the Reverend Doctor Samuel Miller delivered a discourse at a meeting of N-YHS to commemorate the discovery of New York by Henry Hudson, which was followed by a banquet at City Hotel. Other occasions presented themselves, such as the celebration in 1839 of the semi-centennial of Washington's inauguration, with former U.S. President Martin Van Buren as speaker. Often these events were linked to N-YHS's anniversary, such as historian George Bancroft's oration and the subsequent banquet at Delmonico's restaurant for N-YHS's 50th anniversary.
Despite its early growth and successes, N-YHS faced severe financial challenges that nearly destroyed the new organization. Accumulating debt through the 1810s, by 1824 N-YHS owed its creditors about $10,000, with no resources to pay the amount. Through debt renegotiation and other means, including an appropriation of $5,000 from the state legislature, N-YHS paid its debts off by 1828. But the ordeal had severely weakened the organization. Leadership schisms had formed, estranging some members of the founding generation, including John Pintard. Pintard, who was one of N-YHS's creditors but was unable to get fully reimbursed for his expenditures on books, attended no N-YHS meetings from January 1825 through the end of his life in 1844. N-YHS was unable to fully maintain its range of collections, especially the natural history cabinet, which it donated in 1829 to the Lyceum of Natural History. In the late 1820s, N-YHS received notice that it would need to vacate the New York Institution building. It did so in 1832, moving to expensive and less desirable quarters in the Remsen building. Unable to operate financially, the library was closed, meetings were seldom held, and the organization was moribund through the mid-1830s.
In 1837, though, the organization began a turnaround. N-YHS obtained rent-free rooms in the Stuyvesant Institute building, its fifth home. Relieved of expensive rent payments and beginning a series of revenue-producing public lectures in its new home, N-YHS was able to stabilize its finances and re-open the library. The comeback was solidified just a few years later with the move in 1841 to New York University. The 1840s were also marked by other significant moves that strengthened N-YHS's position: the election of a reputable national figure, Albert Gallatin, as N-YHS president (1843-1849); a concerted effort to collect dues from members, reinstate lapsed members, and to expand membership; the re-establishment of a paid assistant librarian position in support of a library with regular hours; publication of N-YHS's Proceedings from 1843 to 1849; the opening of the monthly meetings to non-members; and the creation of a managing Executive Committee in 1842.
As a largely all-volunteer organization through its early decades, it was N-YHS's membership through its participation on committees and as officers that governed and managed the institution. From the founding of N-YHS, standing committees of members were used to perform or oversee critical functions such as soliciting or accepting library donations. Temporary committees were formed to consider specific major acquisitions, audit the Treasurer's accounts, organize commemorative events, raise funds for projects, oversee building construction, and develop lecture topics. But the committees did not necessarily have authority to act on behalf of the Society; their recommendations for action often required a resolution of approval from a vote at the regular meetings of the membership. The Society meetings combined discussions, resolutions and votes on organizational business matters with lectures on historical topics and presentations of historical artifacts. But the establishment of the Executive Committee in 1842 represented a significant change in governance as it would become the most longstanding and important of the standing committees. Initially it too had limited authority, but over the course of its existence, it gradually centralized governance responsibility in itself and away from other committees and the membership, until by the early twentieth century, the Executive Committee largely resembled a Board of Trustees. A 1938 by-law change completed the evolution, replacing the Executive Committee with an independent Board of Trustees.
As the 1840s came to a close, two major developments occurred that would influence N-YHS's direction in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first was an initiative to solicit subscriptions for a Building Fund that would enable N-YHS to construct a fireproof home for itself. Enough money was raised by 1850 to begin to move forward on the project. In 1854, a site at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 11th Street was selected and purchased. This project, and others in the 1850s, proceeded under the leadership of N-YHS President Luther Bradish, who succeeded the deceased Albert Gallatin in 1850.
The second development was the selection of George H. Moore as Librarian in 1849, a position he would hold until he left for the Lenox Library in 1876. The Librarian was an elected officer position, and operated well into the twentieth century as something of an Executive Director. Originally, as with all N-YHS officers, the position was unsalaried and no Librarian before Moore had performed the responsibilities on a regular, full-time basis. Moore was the first Librarian paid for his work, and represented a shift in the nature of the position from one performed to the extent possible by a well-meaning volunteer to one performed by a knowledgeable individual with a full-time focus.
In October 1855, the cornerstone was laid for N-YHS's new home at 2nd Avenue and 11th Street. The building, designed by Mettam & Burke, was completed in 1857 and a dedication ceremony was held in November of that year. Shortly after moving into the 2nd Avenue building, N-YHS began expanding its museum and art collections in significant ways. In 1858, it acquired the collection of the New York Gallery of Fine Art, which principally included American art collected by the wealthy merchant Luman Reed (1785-1836). In 1859, James Lenox donated his collection of thirteen Assyrian relief carvings. And in 1860, N-YHS purchased the Henry Abbott Egyptian collection. With these collections, in the years before the founding of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, N-YHS found itself to be not just a repository of United States historical material, but New York's premier museum. N-YHS continued in this vein in the 1860s by, for example, purchasing John J. Audubon's watercolors for Birds of America in 1863 from his widow, Lucy, and accepting donations of over 375 European artworks from Thomas Jefferson Bryan.
But these acquisitions immediately created strain on the capacity of N-YHS's new building. Consequently, a search for new quarters was initiated. A promising early possibility, which lingered at least through the 1860s, was a grant of land in the new Central Park for a so-called Museum of Antiquities, Science, and Art. It was such a strong possibility that even the renowned photographer Mathew Brady was prompted in 1866 to offer to donate to N-YHS his photographs for permanent exhibition in a gallery of the anticipated museum. Ultimately, though, N-YHS was unsuccessful in acquiring a Central Park location and the chance for a Brady gallery. But the need for space persisted and N-YHS would pursue a resolution with varying levels of intensity almost continuously into the twentieth century.
Other aspects of N-YHS's collections also grew. In 1862, the Committee on Fine Arts (formed in 1856) extolled the importance of photography as historical documentation and called for donations. About 80 photographs were donated in response. But N-YHS had already started collecting photographs well before this publicized appeal, at least by 1857. There was also a huge leap in collecting for the library. N-YHS's 1859 catalogue of printed books included about 25,000 volumes; by 1876, the total volumes held amounted to 60,000. By 1889, the total was 75,000 and by 1893, 100,000.
The publication program of N-YHS continued at an improved pace during the second half of the nineteenth century. Librarian George Moore had developed a plan in 1858 for a Publication Fund that placed the financing of the production of a third series of the Collections on a better, though still undercapitalized, footing than the earlier series. The first volume of the Publication Fund series was printed and distributed to shareholders in 1868. By 1898, a total of 24 volumes had been issued. In addition, historical works began to be published in 1879 that were funded by a new $6,000 endowment, the John Divine Jones Fund.
N-YHS also continued its tradition of holding grand commemorations, including that of the 200th anniversary of the birth of printer William Bradford (1863) and the centennials of the Battle of Harlem (1876), the evacuation of New York by the British (1883), and Washington's inauguration (1889). Major memorials were held at the deaths of N-YHS members Washington Irving (1859) and William Cullen Bryant (1878). On a less grand scale, N-YHS's regular Society meetings continued to include lectures on subjects from the colonial, Revolutionary War, and early Republic periods, many illustrated with stereopticon slides by the late nineteenth century.
Still, as active as N-YHS was in its ongoing activities, there were larger challenges to the organization that lingered for decades. One of these was the lack of space as the growing art, museum, and library collections severely crowded the 2nd Avenue building. One consequence of this crowding was a stated resistance to opening the building to a more general public; the collections remained largely restricted to members and those introduced by members, although by the 1860s groups of schoolchildren were visiting the building. As the importance of N-YHS's collections grew and the public's expectations of access to such collections changed in the later nineteenth century, N-YHS endured greater criticism of its limits. Another challenge was location, as N-YHS's downtown site became increasingly disconnected from the northward growth of the city, other cultural institutions, its scholarly clientele, and its patron base. And a lack of funding to ameliorate these challenges remained into the twentieth century.
Leadership was perhaps also an issue. George Moore was a well-respected Librarian who greatly enhanced N-YHS's reputation with his scholarly contemporaries, including historians George Bancroft, Benson Lossing, and E.B. O'Callaghan. After he left, though, for the Lenox Library in 1876, his natural successor, assistant William Kelby, refused the position. Although Kelby continued to do important work in the assistant librarian position, the key leadership face of the library reverted to volunteers holding the Librarian office. Kelby eventually accepted election as Librarian, in 1893, holding the position until his death five years later. At that time, his brother, Robert, took the position, which he held until ill health forced him into retirement in 1921. All in all, recollections of William Kelby seemed to view him as more internally-focused and oriented toward a more select group of amateurs, particularly genealogists tracing their colonial and early American roots, than with either professional scholars or a broader public, with Robert generally following the same emphasis.
Change was slow, but began in the late 1880s when efforts to gain enough subscriptions for a new building began to bear fruit. N-YHS was unable to raise the amount it needed for an entire building project, but thanks to a generous matching donation from Mrs. Robert L. Stuart, enough money was raised to buy ten lots of land in 1891 on 8th Avenue (Central Park West) between 76th and 77th streets, that is, N-YHS's current location. But the entire building fund was exhausted for the property purchase so actual construction was delayed until 1902 when ground was broken. Even then there was insufficient money, but as the often-endangered project wore on, individual members made key contributions, especially long-time member Harry Dexter, who donated a total of about $250,000. Still, when the building, designed by York & Sawyer, opened in late 1908, only the so-called central portion had been constructed. Further expansion was deferred to the future in the hope of eventually getting the necessary funds.
Moving into the Central Park West building opened up new possibilities for N-YHS. The new building included an exhibition gallery, auditorium for 400 people, book stacks for 130,000 volumes, as well as a large reading room, all thereby accommodating an increased use by the public. In 1908, the requirement for a member introduction to use the library was eliminated. The museum was opened to the public, free of charge. The exhibition gallery, Dexter Hall, was finished just in time to install a Robert Fulton loan exhibition in connection with the city-wide Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909.
Yet, two underlying challenges remained. The first was financial. In 1910, the organization had total funds of only about $225,000, only $140,000 of which could be used to support any purpose. Unrestricted income for the year amounted to only $15,000. Accordingly, the N-YHS staff remained small, totaling four, including the Librarian, two assistants, and a janitor. While this might have been enough to manage routine matters for an insular organization, it was inadequate for an increasingly public-oriented institution and for maintaining a large, diverse, and vulnerable collection. The second challenge was one of governance: Although N-YHS was governed in practical effect by the Executive Committee and its officers, final authority still resided in the hands of the membership, which could exercise that authority on any matter in its monthly meetings and in the annual election of officers. Given that most members by far did not attend the meetings, the potential for a motivated minority to have outsize influence on the organization's course was considerable. These challenges came to the fore in the 1910s.
In 1914 and 1917, the Executive Committee took steps to stabilize the governance and management structure of N-YHS, and to take fuller control of the organization's direction, especially in the face of a public confrontation with a member, Mrs. John King (Mae) Van Rensselaer. In 1914, the by-laws were changed such that elections of officers were held every three years, rather than annually. At the next election, in January 1917, Van Rensselaer voiced loud dissent about a perceived lack of public accessibility to the collections and an overall stagnation in the institution and she pressed for several reforms. Her charges received much play in the press, to the embarrassment of Librarian Kelby and the rest of N-YHS's leaders. Coincidentally or not, later in 1917, a special committee proposed a by-law change that would give the Executive Committee full authority to act on behalf of N-YHS, ending the need for regular monthly membership business meetings. Van Rensselaer protested the change and began to gather supporters to attend the December 1917 meeting to vote the proposal down. In anticipation of an actual contested vote, the Executive Committee determined that proxies could be used, a first in N-YHS's history as previously votes were taken only of members in attendance at meetings. With most proxies empowering an N-YHS officer to vote for the absent member, the by-law change passed. But since members still held one last voting privilege, that of electing officers triennially, Van Rensselaer took one more shot at advancing her agenda. At the next election, in 1920, she put forward a slate of like-minded candidates to run against management's slate. In another proxy fight, Van Rensselaer lost again, after which she turned her attention away from N-YHS.
Whether spurred by Van Rensselaer's criticisms or by other reasons as well, N-YHS began to expand its activities, and 1917 became something of a watershed moment. During the year, cataloguing and conservation work began on the Egyptian collection, a series of free illustrated lectures for schoolchildren on Saturday afternoons was conducted, a new publication, the Quarterly Bulletin, was initiated, and the Audubon watercolors were exhibited. Five new employees were added to the library and a bookkeeper was hired. Technology was embraced with the installation of a lantern slide machine and even a motion picture was shown in connection with a program about then-current World War I activities. The following year, 1918, saw the creation of the Field Exploration Committee; through 1937, under the leadership of William L. Calver and Reginald Pelham Bolton, the committee conducted digs at historic sites to unearth artifacts and reported on their activities in the Annual Report and in Bulletin articles. And, although there were no longer any monthly business meetings for the general membership after 1917, the monthly lecture programs continued.
Whatever the motivation, little of these new initiatives could have been accomplished without financial resources, which did pick up during these years. By 1920, total funds had doubled since 1910, to about $550,000, of which about $450,000 was unrestricted. Annual general revenue was about $40,000. Special, or restricted funds, also benefited, notably the Publication Fund, which received a cash infusion from a bequest from John Watts DePeyster in 1908 in return for changing the Fund's name to include his. The Publication Fund, which had a seldom-realized goal of producing a volume per year since its first volume in 1868, caught up in 1916 and remained roughly on pace in the following years.
N-YHS fully left the nineteenth century behind in 1921 when Robert Kelby resigned as Librarian, clearing the way for his assistant, Alexander J. Wall, to take the position. Wall, whose original surname was Wohlhagen until he changed it during the WWI years at the request of N-YHS officers, had been an assistant librarian at N-YHS since 1898. Wall was an extraordinarily gregarious and energetic person, who established himself and N-YHS within a broader public presence and professional network.
Though financial constraints continued, N-YHS retained the various programs it initiated around 1917, while pursuing new programs. A gold medal for achievement in history was awarded on occasion beginning in 1925, the first medal going to Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. A scholarly relationship with Columbia University was started in 1925 with the inauguration of an undergraduate essay contest. In 1928, the New York State Legislature passed an amendment to N-YHS's charter, recognizing a purpose of the institution as educational, thereby ensuring certain state tax advantages. And in 1929, N-YHS Treasurer (and future President) George A. Zabriskie donated equipment and money to establish an in-house bindery. The bindery's handiwork can be found at many points in the N-YHS archives, including bound minute books, accession ledgers, registers, and more.
Wall, like his earliest predecessors, also appealed to the general public for potential donations, running advertisements in Long Island newspapers in 1922 asking readers to consider giving any old documents they might have to N-YHS. Separately, the Naval History Society closed its doors in 1925, donating its collections to N-YHS and arranging for its members to acquire member privileges. To accommodate the continuously growing collection and in hopes of someday expanding the existing building, in the 1920s N-YHS purchased lots on West 76th and 77th streets adjoining its Central Park West property. Townhouses stood on these lots and were used as "annexes" initially for storage, then in the early 1930s as exhibition space open to the public, including for the Naval History Society collection.
The 1930s brought another major development to N-YHS, one that set its direction for the rest of the twentieth century. In 1935, the death of Miss Mary Gardiner Thompson, the last of four siblings, resulted in a bequest of about $4.6 million to N-YHS. The monies were received by N-YHS over several years, from 1935 to 1942, but N-YHS acted immediately to use this unprecedentedly large donation. The first priority was to finally complete the Central Park West building. After considering the architects of the central portion of the building, York & Sawyer, N-YHS decided to go instead with the firm of Walker & Gillette. Turner Construction Company was chosen as the builder and general contractor. The building was closed in May 1937 for construction, which was completed in early 1939, and the building officially reopened on April 1. The expanded building now had wings on its north and south sides, a new fifteen-tier book stack, as well as a renovated central portion and expanded space for galleries, work areas, and rooms dedicated to prints, manuscripts, the Landauer Collection of Business and Professional History (which had been donated in 1926), and more. Additional lots with standing townhouses had been bought in 1937 and these townhouses, along with those purchased in the 1920s, were razed to make way for the wings and to provide space for even further expansion in the future (which was never done).
The additional work space was essential because the next priority for the Thompson bequest was to significantly expand the scope of operations, and the staff needed to perform the work. Only about $1.7 million of the bequest was used for the construction and renovation, leaving $3 million to fund N-YHS's endowment and also to spend immediately to increase staff. Almost overnight, N-YHS's staff size grew from perhaps ten people in the early 1930s to 48 in 1938, and then to about the target size of 75 employees. This expanded staff now included art, museum, manuscript and other specialized curators, a registrar, a publications editor, a supervisor of education and public relations, art restorers, and a variety of other new positions, as well as additional catalogers and other library staff. In short, within just a few years, from 1935-1940, N-YHS used the Thompson bequest to transform the organization, establishing the physical plant and the modern organizational and professional structure that would last into the late twentieth century and beyond in some respects.
The changes also extended to the organization's governance structure. In the mid-1930s, N-YHS was still managed by an Executive Committee and officers elected every three years by the membership. The Librarian, Alexander Wall, was an elected officer responsible for all operations. In 1937, N-YHS completed the governance changes advanced in 1917 by again amending the by-laws such that the Executive Committee and member-elected officers were eliminated, replaced by an independent, self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, which exists to the present. Officers were no longer elected by members, but hired or appointed. Recognizing the institution-wide responsibilities of the "Librarian," especially in the newly-expanded and diversified organization, Wall's position was renamed "Director." The title of that position has changed over the decades to convey the full extent of the role in the nomenclature of contemporary institutions, and is now referred to as President and Chief Executive Officer.
With the re-conceptualization of the Librarian as Director, for a time there was no official Librarian position. Wall continued to play that role to a degree, though it became apparent soon that the library warranted more focus than he could provide from the Director position. Accordingly, Wall's longtime assistant, Dorothy C. Barck, was named Librarian in 1942, a position she held until she left N-YHS in 1954. Starting as an assistant in the library in 1922, Barck took on Wall's various editorial roles in the mid-1930s. In the expanded organization of the early 1940s, Barck retained both library and editorial responsibilities until 1944, when Charles E. Baker took over the Editorial Department. Into the late twentieth century, when it was eliminated because of N-YHS's financial difficulties, the Editorial Department continued to oversee the production of volumes of the Collections from the DePeyster Publication Fund, reference works such as the Dictionary of Artists in America, the Quarterly Bulletin (from 1946 known as the New-York Historical Society Quarterly), and other works.
N-YHS's momentum was immediately slowed, but not stopped, by the entry of the United States into World War II. Some staff members, including the museum curator and the head of education and public relations (Wall's son, Alexander J. Wall, Jr.) entered military service and were away for the duration of the war. As several New York museums did, N-YHS sent important parts of the collection out of the city for safekeeping against potential air raids. The skylights of the building were covered over and sand laid on the top floor as steps against the risk of incendiary bombs. Programs at N-YHS continued, though various other wartime precautions, such as reduced hours, were implemented and part of the building was used by a Red Cross unit for making surgical dressings. By 1945, the war was over and the full staff back together. But Wall was not there to continue building on the foundation he had laid. He died in April 1944, replaced by R.W.G. Vail, the State Librarian of New York, who would be the author in 1954 of one of the essential histories of N-YHS, Knickerbocker Birthday.
The last half of the twentieth century was a mix of intense highs and lows for N-YHS. N-YHS continued in its commitment to public access to its collections and to public and educational programming based on those collections. For example, library usage alone grew from 4,700 visitors in 1950 to 11,800 in 1971, while the number of overall visitors to the building in 1971 hit 371,000. In 1965, the building, traditionally closed in August, began to remain open through the summer. N-YHS also began to make inroads in fully cataloging its collections, such as with N-YHS's first comprehensive guide to its manuscript collections, prepared by Arthur J. Breton and published in 1972. With emergent digital technology making card and print catalogues obsolete within a couple of decades, grant funded and other projects were initiated to catalog holdings in databases and for global public access via the Internet; for example, N-YHS moved from 300,000 catalog cards in 1980 to 300,000 on-line records just twenty years later. Although the bindery operation begun in 1929 was closed in 1960 in favor of outside providers, in 1989 an on-site conservation lab was established that remains in place. A renovation started in 1966 added air-conditioning, improved ventilation, and other protective climate control measures. The number of special exhibitions expanded dramatically; for an appendix to his bicentennial history of N-YHS in 2004, former Librarian Larry Sullivan compiled a list of well over 500 exhibitions installed at N-YHS from 1954 to 2004.
N-YHS continued to accession material into its rich collections, including a Tiffany lamp collection from Egon Neustadt in the early 1980s. But more importantly for its long term success was that N-YHS engaged with the need to have a more focused collections policy. Aside from N-YHS's founding statements, no such policy existed until 1959 when one was formally adopted. This statement was revisited and modified in 1971 and again at times into the twenty-first century. One consequence of this increased focus on the appropriateness of materials to N-YHS's mission was to evaluate, not just newly offered accessions, but existing collections as well. This critical analysis had begun already, at least by the 1920s, as questions emerged about the Egyptian and other antiquities in the collection as the role of N-YHS in relation to institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art was becoming clearer. When N-YHS's building closed for expansion and renovation in the 1930s, the Egyptian and other such artifacts were loaned to the Brooklyn Museum, which purchased them from N-YHS in the 1940s. As N-YHS sharpened its collecting focus, deaccessions of European paintings from the Bryan collection and other materials took place in the 1970s-1990s, often with criticism from the press, public and other museums.
Yet, as N-YHS advanced its collections, facilities, and public service goals, it bore a large financial cost, and as the economy soured in 1970 and later, N-YHS's financial base was unable to keep up. In response in the 1970s, on the expense side, staff positions were eliminated, salaries were constrained, and other such measures were taken. To increase revenues, a small usage fee for the library was implemented for nonmembers in 1972, member categories were expanded and increased in cost, financial donations were sought, and other steps were taken. Substantial stress wracked the organization through the 1970s, leading much of the staff to unionize in 1979. The subsequent contract negotiations were not resolved until mid-1980, after a strike had closed the library for several months.
The financial struggles persisted and worsened through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, with the stock market crash of 1987 and an investigation by the New York State Attorney General conducted from 1988-1990 just two of the challenges facing N-YHS during these tumultuous years. Various strategies were pursued or considered, some successfully implemented, others not, but the structural difficulties were too great and deficits continued to mount. Press coverage, often critical, added to the pressure. Through this financial crisis, N-YHS maintained its public programs in order to retain support. But that was no longer feasible by January 1993, when the museum exhibition galleries were closed. The library remained open slightly longer, but was closed on February 19, 1993. It was a traumatic, but clarifying moment that gradually led to recovery.
A small grant from the city and state re-opened the library, on reduced hours, within a few days, but the contribution's greater significance was that public money had come to N-YHS in support of its mission for the first time in over a century. Additional city and state money followed later in the year and a foothold for a turnaround was finally established. N-YHS took full advantage of the opportunity through the rest of the 1990s and into 2004, its bicentennial anniversary. City and state funding continued, sizable private donations were acquired, and institutional partnerships were formed, thereby stabilizing and then strengthening the institution, rebuilding the endowment to $33 million in 2001 (from $7.6 million in 1988). Major, successful initiatives were carried out, including the creation of the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, used to house and exhibit thousands of museum objects. Important exhibitions were installed including those concerning lynching (2000), Alexander Hamilton (2004) and slavery in New York (2005).
Former Librarian Larry E. Sullivan's The New-York Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1804-2004 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2004) is the best narrative providing insight into the broad history of N-YHS from its founding to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Sullivan's book includes a bibliography that cites several works, most of which will not be repeated here. These works include several that focus on particular aspects of N-YHS's vast collections. Former Director R.W.G. Vail's Knickerbocker History: A Sesqui-Centennial History of The New-York Historical Society, 1804-1954 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1954) also provides an important narrative of the N-YHS, especially for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vail's narrative and interpretations of events was clearly an influential source for later works and needs to be engaged. Vail includes invaluable reference lists of all N-YHS officers and Executive Committee members, and a summary of publications, through 1954.
Pamela Spence Richards's Scholars and Gentlemen: The Library of the New-York Historical Society, 1804-1982 (Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1984) provides a survey of N-YHS's history, but its value lies principally in its engagement with the subject of N-YHS's library administration, such as the extent of public access to the collections, development of the collection, cataloging practices, staffing and professionalization, and the influence of particular officers, especially the Librarians/Directors, on the institution's direction. Tom Glynn also considers the issue of accessibility to N-YHS's collections, though his focus is on the nineteenth century, in a chapter of his book Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911 (New York : Empire State Editions, an imprint of Fordham University Press, 2015). Kevin M. Guthrie's The New-York Historical Society: Lessons from One Nonprofit's Long Struggle for Survival (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996) is essential for its in-depth discussion of N-YHS's history from a financial perspective, especially from the 1950s to 1990s, placing it in the context of N-YHS's broader history. The January 2005 issue of the magazine Antiques celebrated the bicentennial of N-YHS with several articles focusing on the museum and art collections, along with a historical overview.
1804 N-YHS is founded (November 20). It meets in City Hall, where N-YHS will use a room for its first home until 1809.
1809 New York State Legislature approves act incorporating N-YHS (February 10)
1811 Publication of N-YHS's first volume of Collections of The New-York Historical Society.
1813 First catalogue of N-YHS holdings published. It includes about 4,000 books and pamphlets, plus newspapers, maps, prints, manuscripts, and oil portraits.
1824 A special committee determines that N-YHS is $10,000 in debt and is unable to repay it. The library is closed for several years as the financial and other issues are worked through.
1828 With $5,000 from the State Legislature, N-YHS resolves its debts.
1829 N-YHS donates its natural history cabinet, begun in earnest in 1817, to the Lyceum of Natural History.
1837 After many years of being closed, N-YHS moves into rent free rooms at the new Stuyvesant Institute at 659 Broadway (opposite Bond St) and is able to re-open the following year.
1838 A paid lecture series is started for the public, and is successful, permitting N-YHS to recover financially and hire an assistant librarian to open the library.
1839 N-YHS holds a celebration of the semi-centennial of the inauguration of George Washington. John Quincy Adams is the featured speaker.
1841 N-YHS moves into rooms in a New York University building on Washington Square.
1841 Volume I of the second series of the Collections of the New-York Historical Society is published.
1842 N-YHS establishes a standing Executive Committee to manage the institution.
1846 N-YHS petitions the state legislature to renew its original act of incorporation, which had expired in 1824. This renewal passed.
1847 N-YHS decides to begin raising a $50,000 fund to erect a permanent fireproof home.
1849 The library holds 15,000 books and pamphlets.
1849 George Henry Moore succeeds his father, Jacob Bailey Moore, as Librarian, a position he holds until 1876.
1852 Daniel Webster speaks at N-YHS's February meeting.
1854 N-YHS celebrates its 50th anniversary at Niblo's Garden theatre, with George Bancroft as orator.
1854 Land bought at southeast corner of Second Ave and 11th Street for a building.
1855 The cornerstone for the building was laid (October 17).
1856 A Committee on Fine Arts is formed for the purpose of increasing N-YHS's collection of works of art.
1856 First recorded instance of N-YHS's annual Strawberry Festival, though these likely began earlier than 1856.
1857 N-YHS dedicates and moves into its new home.
1858 The art collection formerly held by the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts, which was built on the private collection of Luman Reed, is donated to N-YHS.
1858 A Publication Fund is established to finance the production of a new series of the Collections of The New-York Historical Society.
1859 James Lenox Collection of Assyrian relief carvings donated.
1859 N-YHS publishes A Catalogue of the Printed Books in the Library, the last of its kind. It includes about 25,000 volumes. Future catalogs of the books will consist of cards or, in the late 20th century, public databases.
1860 N-YHS purchases the Abbott collection of about 1,100 Egyptian artifacts. It goes on display the following year.
1860 N-YHS forms a special committee to pursue the possibility of establishing a Museum of Antiquities, Science, and Art in Central Park. The possibility lingers into the late 1860s before fading completely in the 1870s.
1862 N-YHS's Committee on Fine Arts makes an appeal in its Annual Report for donations of photographs, which it has been gradually collecting since at least 1857.
1863 N-YHS purchases John J. Audubon's watercolors for Birds of America from his widow, Lucy.
1867 Thomas Jefferson Bryan donates his collection of European art to N-YHS. Additional objects are bequeathed by Bryan at his death in 1870.
1868 The first volume of the Publication Fund series of the Collections is issued.
1869 The American Museum of Natural History is founded. Its opening exhibits appear in 1871 in the Central Park Arsenal, the home N-YHS had pursued in the 1860s.
1870 The Metropolitan Museum of Art opens at a midtown location. It moves to Central Park in 1880.
1870 NYHS purchases drawings of North American Indians by George Catlin.
1871 At its March meeting, N-YHS hears its first paper written by a woman, Martha Lamb, read by Librarian George Moore. Lamb herself would read a paper to N-YHS in 1878, likely the first reading by a woman to the Society.
1891 N-YHS purchases ten lots on Central Park West for a new building, but has no funds for construction.
1880 N-YHS forms a Building Committee to gather subscriptions for a new building. Little money is committed until later in the decade.
1893 By this date, the library holds about 100,000 volumes.
1898 The trustees of the New York Public Library propose that N-YHS consolidate with the library, but the N-YHS Executive Committee declines.
1902 Construction started on the central portion of the new Central Park West building, designed by York & Sawyer. Funds are still insufficient and will only gradually be accumulated.
1904 N-YHS celebrates its centennial anniversary at Delmonico's restaurant. It votes to exclude the women members from the banquet and relegates them to the balcony with nonmembers for the post-dinner orations.
1908 N-YHS moves its collections into the new building. The public is now welcome without needing a member introduction.
1908 John Watts DePeyster bequeaths $25,000, in part to the endowment of the Publication Fund, which is then renamed the John Watts DePeyster Fund in conformance with the terms of the bequest.
1909 N-YHS installs a Robert Fulton loan exhibition, in official connection with the city-wide Hudson-Fulton Celebration.
1917 A member, Mrs. John King (Mae) Van Rensselaer, criticizes N-YHS management at a Society meeting. These criticisms are reported by the press and reforms are considered in N-YHS.
1917 A series of new programs are implemented: cataloguing and conservation work was started on the Egyptian collection, a series of free illustrated lectures for schoolchildren on Saturday afternoons was conducted, a new publication, the Quarterly Bulletin, was initiated, and the Audubon watercolors were exhibited. Five new employees were added to the library and a bookkeeper was hired.
1917 A by-law amendment is adopted that vests almost complete management authority for N-YHS with the Executive Committee, ending the need for regular business meetings of the membership.
1918 The Field Exploration Committee is formed to conduct digs for historic artifacts. The Committee exists until circa 1937.
1921 Longtime N-YHS library assistant Alexander J. Wall replaces Robert Kelby as Librarian.
1925 The collections of the Naval History Society are donated to N-YHS.
1925 N-YHS begins to expand its property ownership in anticipation of future building expansion. It purchases the former Oscar Strauss townhouse at 5 West 76th street. Other purchases on West 76th and 77th streets are made in the 1920s and 1930s. The townhouses are used as annexes for storage and exhibitions.
1925 A gold medal award for achievement in history is inaugurated. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes is the first recipient.
1926 The Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Professional History is donated.
1929 An in-house bindery is established. It exists until 1960.
1935 A bequest of about $4.6 million from the Thompson estate is received from 1935-1942. It is used to complete the Central Park West building, expand the staff substantially (eventually to about 75 people), and build the endowment.
1937 Construction starts on the expansion of the Central Park West building. It is completed and the building re-opened in 1939. Designed by Walker & Gillette, major changes include the addition of north and south wings and a fifteen tier book stack.
1937 The Abbott Egyptian collection and other antiquities are loaned to the Brooklyn Museum. Most of these are sold to the museum in the 1940s.
1937 N-YHS reorganizes. The Executive Committee is replaced by an independent Board of Trustees and the former Librarian position takes the title of Director, recognizing the position's traditional responsibility for the entire organization. The organization expands into specialized departments staffed by discipline-specific professionals.
1937 N-YHS purchases the Elie Nadelman Folk Art collection.
1942 Precautions are taken against the possibility of air raid damage, including storage of some of the collection outside the city.
1944 Alexander Wall dies, replaced by R.W.G. Vail, State Librarian of New York.
1954 N-YHS celebrates it 150th anniversary. Among the commemorations is the publication of Director Vail's history of N-YHS, Knickerbocker Birthday.
1959 N-YHS adopts a formal acquisitions policy for the first time. It will be updated in 1971 and from time to time afterward.
1966 A major renovation adds air-conditioning, better ventilation, and other protective climate control measures.
1970s An economic downturn and the cost of N-YHS programs and operations combine to create financial stress that will not begin to ease until the mid-1990s.
1971 Visitors to N-YHS numbers 371,000 for the year.
1971 N-YHS sold at auction about 200 paintings from the Bryan collection. Additional out of scope works were sold in the 1980s and mid-1990s.
1972 Arthur J. Breton produces the first comprehensive catalogue of N-YHS's manuscript collections since the early nineteenth century.
1979 Faced with ongoing financial stress in the organization, N-YHS staff unionize. The library is closed for several months due to a strike during contract negotiations.
1980 N-YHS begins the years-long process of transferring information from its 300,000 item library card catalog to an on-line publicly accessible catalog.
1987 A stock market crash compounds N-YHS's severe financial difficulties.
1993 Continuing financial difficulty force the closing of the museum in January and library in February. State and city funding, the first in over a century, allows the library to re-open. Slowly, recovery occurs in the following years.
2000 The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, used to house and exhibit thousands of museum objects, is opened.
2001 The endowment mounts to $33 million (from $7.6 million in 1988).
2004 N-YHS celebrates its bicentennial. Among the commemorations is a special issue of Antiques magazine and a new history of N-YHS by former Librarian Larry E. Sullivan.
2005 A major exhibition, Slavery in New York, is installed.