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Guide to the Records of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention
1808-1983 (Bulk 1828-1940)
 MS 17

New-York Historical Society
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New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Collection processed by Processed by Maurita Baldock, Cara Brick, Richard Fraser, Melissa Haley, and Tom Rosko with assistance by Keri Myers, Liz Arena Steinberg, and Joe Festa.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on October 15, 2021
Description is in English.

Historical Note

The American Institute of the City of New York was founded on February 19, 1828, and was incorporated the next year. The Institute's Charter states its purpose as the "encouraging and promoting domestic industry in this State, and the United States, in Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacturing and the Arts, and any improvements made therein." It attempted to fulfill that task by two means: first, by organizing annual fairs at which prizes were awarded to outstanding artisans and inventors, and second, by actively promoting government policies that would encourage and protect domestic manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce.

In 1828, when the American Institute was founded, a tariff bill was before Congress and the American Institute, unlike similar organizations such as the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, made no secret of its support of the new tariff. Advocates of the bill regarded it as essential for protecting American manufacturing from overseas competition, particularly from Great Britain. Throughout the 19th Century, the Institute promoted the idea of protectionism and government spending on infrastructure. The Institute also published numerous pamphlets on these subjects, including articles on protectionism and internal improvements in its magazine, Journal of the American Institute of the City of New York (later,  Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New York). In the years before the Civil War, the Institute's annual fairs routinely opened with addresses and lectures on political economy.

The fairs were scheduled annually, though there were a handful of years when a fair was not held. The first fair was held in October 1828, eight months after the Institute's founding. Entrants were, in the early years of the Institute, mostly artisans and manufacturers from New York City, New York State and New Jersey, and occasionally from New England. The earliest fair represented in the collection, in 1831, had 346 entrants. Over the years, however, the fairs attracted more participants, and the 23rd Fair, held in 1850, had over 2,000 entrants. By this time, the fairs included exhibitors from all of the New England and Middle Atlantic States, and occasionally from the South and West.

The Institute itself was divided into four departments: Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacturing, and the Arts; upon joining, members were assigned to one of the departments. Since the Institute had given itself the broad mission of fostering manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce throughout the United States, and also included the Arts under its purview, exhibitors at the fairs demonstrated a wide range of skills. In addition to industrial and agricultural exhibits, the fairs included the fine and decorative arts, with exhibitions of painting and sculpture, as well as wax fruit and stuffed and mounted animals.

In the periods between fairs, inventors and businesses sent the Institute a wide variety of goods, including books, seeds, and plans or models of new or improved machinery, asking that the Institute test and evaluate the submissions. The Institute appointed experts, singly or in committees, to make the assessments and report their findings. The Institute also actively advocated a tariff on imported goods, reform of patent law, and a federal bankruptcy law. Another matter of particular importance to the Institute was the development of a domestic silk industry in the United States.

In the pre-Civil War era, the fairs reflected the transition from cottage industry to commercial manufacturing. Premiums were awarded to individual artisans for superior work in fabricating articles like pails or barrels; at the same time, however, the American Institute was as likely to award prizes to inventors who successfully mechanized the processes for making such articles, thus making the artisans obsolete. The Institute's fairs also provided a venue for public demonstrations of some of the most significant inventions of the 19th Century, including Morse's telegraph and Colt's revolvers.

A symbiotic relationship existed between the Institute and the winners of the Institute's premiums. As the American Institute awarded prizes, it became more visible, and prize winners took advantage of the Institute's prestige by featuring their awards in their advertising. As its endorsements grew in prestige, the Institute sometimes received correspondence from exhibitors who had received lesser awards, complaining that they deserved gold medals. In 1840, a scandal erupted when it was alleged that exhibitors were paying the Institute to upgrade silver medals to gold. Not a legal matter, the Institute survived the scandal with its reputation intact.

From the Institute's beginnings through the post-Civil War period, its fairs drew eminent exhibitors and were well attended by the public. At the opening of the 40th Annual Fair in 1871, Walt Whitman read a poem celebrating industrial progress, and, by extension, the fair and its sponsor. That same year, the Institute's president, E.G. Squier, proposed that the Institute acquire property from the city to construct a permanent "Palace of Industry" in New York. Although the permanent exhibition was never realized, the annual fairs continued, and remained a prominent fixture in the city's cultural calendar.

In 1892, however,the annual fair ran a deficit for the first time. The Institute attributed this to the depressed economy and to competition for exhibitors from the Chicago World's Fair. The board of the American Institute then cancelled the 1893 Annual Fair. The Institute seems at this time to have undergone a brief period of indecision about its future course. In 1896, and again in 1897, it held fairs, but neither was financially successful. The Board of Trustees concluded, in its 1897 Annual Report (dated January 20, 1898) that "the era of the fair as an advertising medium, as well as a popular resort, must be recorded as an amusement and business venture of the past."

Nevertheless, the Institute remained solvent, and its real estate and bond holdings generated income. The Institute's charter required it to hold Annual Fairs, so the Institute continued to hold annual shows of flowers and agricultural products. Unlike the fairs of the 19th Century, which lasted for up to two months, the "Grand Chrysanthemum Shows" were one or two day affairs.

The Institute seems to have chafed at its loss of importance and prestige. In 1914, the Board of Trustees of the American Institute appointed a committee to solicit advice from a variety of experts on how the Institute could "increase its usefulness." Suggestions ranged from arranging lecture series to holding concerts to producing motion pictures that detailed industrial processes. Aside from sponsoring occasional lectures, nothing seems to have come of these suggestions. By the 1920's, however, some Institute-sponsored lectures were broadcast on the radio, which served to raise the Institute's profile somewhat.

In 1924, the Institute once again tried to mount a fair that recalled its former success. An "Inventors' Exhibition" was held in 1924, and another in 1925. These fairs were considerably smaller than those held in the 19th Century, and were only week-long exhibitions, but appear to have been popular with the public and rewarding for exhibitors. Nevertheless, the series of Inventors' Exhibitions lost money and ended in 1927.

In the late 1920's the Institute realized that it would have to transform itself in order to survive. Its members increasingly realized that technological progress was no longer a novelty and mass production had ceased to be exceptional. Advertising created mass markets for new products and obviated the need for industrial exhibitions.

The Institute responded to the challenge by changing its approach. On the one hand, it tried, with some success, to associate itself with the fields of scientific research that were expanding in the post-World War I era. It hosted dinners for outstanding scientists from both academic and corporate institutions. It continued its lecture series and radio broadcasts, now emphasizing developments in disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and electronics, rather than manufacturing or agriculture.

The strategy of sponsoring lectures by eminent scientists helped to boost the membership of the Institute by attracting a younger generation of members with academic backgrounds in the sciences. By the end of the 1920's, however, the American Institute's Board of Trustees began to regard the emphasis on science as unfaithful to the original mission of the Institute, which had included under its purview the arts and agriculture. The trustees also seem to have balked at the expense represented by the honoraria paid to lecturers and guest speakers at Institute functions. In 1930, the trustees determined to cancel the adult programs. This provoked a controversy within the ranks of the Institute, and at a tumultuous meeting in November 1930, most of the existing board was voted out and replaced by younger members of a more scientific bent. The adult programs continued throughout the 1930's and beyond. A merger with the New York Electrical Society, also in 1930, solidified the Institute's engagement with the scientific community.

The American Institute also transformed itself into an advocate for scientific education. To this end, the Institute courted a constituency of scientists of the future. In 1928, the Institute held its annual Children's Fair. The American Institute claimed that it developed the idea of the children's science fair that later became popular with schools and other organizations.

The Institute continued and expanded its educational activities for children. The children's science fairs remained popular throughout the 1930's and the Institute sponsored meetings, workshops and radio programs for children. Its membership drives garnered applications from individuals throughout the United States, and student science clubs sought affiliation with the American Institute. During the 1930's, the Institute developed relationships with two important corporate sponsors, Westinghouse and IBM. In 1939, the American Institute sponsored a children's exhibit in the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1939-1940 World's Fair. After the fair, Westinghouse and IBM also created an advanced scientific laboratory for the use of gifted students from New York City high schools. By the end of the decade, the Institute was creating children's publications including the bi-monthly magazine, Science Observer, that had subscribers nationwide.

The series of adult programs that the Institute sponsored ended in the early 1940's. Thereafter, until the early 1980's the Institute concerned itself primarily with producing science fairs for students in New York City schools. Prize-winners were awarded a small sum of money, usually not exceeding twenty dollars for a first-prize winner. The money for these awards appears to have been provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with which the American Institute was by this time affiliated. The last entry for the American Institute in the Encyclopedia of Associations appears in the 1983 edition.