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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Celebratory and Memorial Event Records

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on February 10, 2021
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

Founded in November 1804, the members of the New-York Historical Society would often gather throughout its history to commemorate and celebrate important anniversaries or events. (Not all of these commemorations are represented in this particular record group, so the following note emphasizes in its examples those events for which documents are present. See the Related Material Note for references to other N-YHS record groups with documents concerning commemorative events.)

Certainly one significant and regular gathering marked the annual anniversary of N-YHS itself. N-YHS often sought noteworthy speakers for these anniversaries, such as Charles Francis Adams (1870) and Richard Salter Storrs (1875), who were among those who made addresses on these occasions. In 1925, N-YHS initiated an award "For Achievement in History." The gold medal was presented at N-YHS's anniversary meeting, though it was not awarded every year. Among the recipients were Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1925), Wilberforce Eames (1931), DeWitt M. Lockman (1933), and George Clinton Densmore Odell (1942).

Major anniversaries of N-YHS's founding called for more than the usual celebration. The semi-centennial (50th) anniversary included an address by George Bancroft and a dinner at the Astor House. The centennial celebration included a dinner and subsequent toasts and speeches at Delmonico's restaurant, an event that generated controversy as the women members of N-YHS were excluded from the dinner and relegated to the balcony with non-members for the after-dinner orations. The sesqui-centennial (150th) anniversary was a two-part affair, with a dinner in May 1954 for a select group at the Union Club and an address by Columbia University President Grayson L. Kirk, followed in November with a full meeting that included an address by historian Allan Nevins. For both the centennial and sesqui-centennial, commemorative medals were struck and histories of N-YHS were written, both offered for sale.

Aside from its anniversaries, N-YHS also celebrated other events in its institutional history, such as the completion of its building on Central Park West in 1939 (see New-York Historical Society original buildings planning & construction records (NYHS-RG 3) for more information about the history of the institution's buildings), the opening of its new Early American Rooms (1951), and the publication of a biography about the nineteenth century singer Emma Thursby (1940). And N-YHS memorialized its members who had recently died, typically with remarks at a regular meeting of the members, but on occasion at a larger public gathering. In at least one instance, for former Treasurer Robert Schell, N-YHS arranged the publication of a memorial book (1901). Some of these memorial events concerned individuals who were national figures as well as N-YHS members, including Washington Irving (1860) and William Cullen Bryant (1878). Bryant's memorial, held in New York's Academy of Music, was attended by U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes and members of his Cabinet.

Beyond its own history, N-YHS commemorated important historical events of a national, state or local character, such as the 100th Anniversary of the New York State Constitution (1877) and the 200th Anniversary of the Introduction of Printing in New York City (1893). A significant occasion along these lines was the 1909 joint celebration of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the river that would later carry his name and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton's successful use of steam for traveling on the Hudson. The overall activities for the weeks-long celebration were coordinated by a Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission, funded by the state, city and private donors. In cooperation with the Commission and other groups, especially the Colonial Dames of America, N-YHS installed the event's official Robert Fulton loan exhibition in its newly-built Dexter Hall. N-YHS was also the location for one of the reviewing stands along the route of the three parades that took place during the late September and early October celebration. After the close of the celebration and the Commission completed its work, it donated its records to N-YHS (the records are available; see manuscript call number MS 314).

Not all events at N-YHS were grand commemorations. Public lecture series, long a staple of N-YHS programming and commonly illustrated with lantern slides, continued in the twentieth century, featuring popular speakers such as Gilbert McClurg, Alvin F. Harlow, and Charles Wellington Furlong in the 1930s and Harry Twyford Peters in the 1940s. But programming also expanded in new directions, including musicales and other concert programs. Some of these musical programs were tied to other events at N-YHS, including to the revivals in 1939 of two nineteenth century N-YHS traditions: the springtime reception called the Strawberry Festival after its featured refreshment and the December celebration of St. Nicholas Day. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, N-YHS often linked the timing of its November anniversary celebrations to the Dutch traditions of St. Nicholas Day in December; in 1939 this tradition was revived with public programming associated with December holiday festivities.

(The principal source for this note was N-YHS Director R.W.G. Vail's Knickerbocker Birthday, published in conjunction with the institution's sesqui-centennial anniversary in 1954. See especially the section "Elegant Dinners and Eloquent Diners" on pages 361-445.)