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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archive
1804-2009 (bulk 1900s-1970s)
 NYHS-RG 5

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


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Maurita Baldock (2005), with revisions and additions by Celia Hartmann (2007) and Larry Weimer (2015)

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on October 27, 2020
Finding aid is written in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

Timeline of Homes of N-YHS
1804-1809 The City Hall, Northside of Wall Street at the head of Broad Street
1809-1816 The Government House, Facing Bowling Green
1816-1832 New York Institution, in City Hall Park
1832-1837 Remsen Building, Southwest corner of Broadway at Chambers Street
1837-1841 Stuyvesant Institute, 639 Broadway opposite Bond Street
1841-1857 New York University, East Side of Washington Square
1857-1908 170 Second Avenue, Southeast corner of 11th Street
1908-present 170 Central Park West at 77th Street

History of N-YHS:

"For without the aid of historic records and authentic documents, history would be nothing more than a well-combined series of ingenious conjectures and amusing fables." From an 1805 address of the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society is New York's oldest museum. At the time of the Society's founding in 1804, only 75,000 people lived in New York City, Alexander Hamilton had just been killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, and New York still spelled its name with a hyphen (thus the hyphen in the museum's name). On November 20, 1804, merchant John Pintard met with ten other New Yorkers to create an organization that would, according to its Constitution, "collect and preserve whatever may relate to the natural, civil, or ecclesiastical History of the United States in general and of this State in particular." This was a broad mission statement but since there were very few museums at the time, and only one other historical society in the nation, the founders decided it was imperative to collect an inclusive range of materials before they were lost.

The first meetings of the Society were held rent free in City Hall because New York City's mayor, DeWitt Clinton, was a founding member. The Society's library grew significantly in 1809 when Pintard sold his own book and manuscript collection to the New-York Historical Society. As the library and museum continued to grow, its members soon realized that it needed a home. Unable to find a permanent space, the Society moved five times between 1809 and 1857, until it was able to construct its own building on Second Avenue and Eleventh Street.

In the mid-19th century, the Society's membership increased along with its library and art collections. Between 1858-1867, the Society acquired the collection of the New York Gallery of Fine Arts, the Abbott collection of Egyptian Artifacts (now at the Brooklyn Museum), and 433 watercolor paintings of John James Audubon. Soon the art and the library were competing for space and it became apparent that the Society had once again outgrown its home. In 1908, N-YHS moved into a newly constructed building at its present location at 77th Street and Central Park West. Renovations in the 1930's added two new wings and a fifteen-story stack area to the building. Today, the museum and library continue to provide access to collections relating to the political, legal, cultural, mercantile, and social history of the United States and New York in particular.

For more detailed history see: Vail, R.W.G. Knickerbocker birthday : a sesqui-centennial history of the New York Historical Society, 1804-1954. New York : New York Historical Society, 1954.

Administrative History of the Pictorial Archive

The specific source of the pictorial archive is uncertain, but the bulk of it appears to have been compiled from various sources, mostly N-YHS in-house photographers, but also outside sources. The archive was likely compiled by the staff of N-YHS's Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections, known as the Print Room. The pictorial archive as it existed in 1998 was documented in Helena Zinkham A Guide to Print, Photograph, Architecture & Ephemera Collections; it is recorded as PR 46 at page 114.

Since 1998, the Pictorial Archive was transferred into N-YHS's institutional archive, and assigned a new call number (NYHS-RG 5). Although the core content of the Pictorial Archive appears to have remained consistent over recent decades, the arrangement and description of the content has changed somewhat over time. Also, additional material has continued to be integrated into the Pictorial Archive, while some material, especially architectural plans and Field Exploration Committee negatives, have been moved to other record groups within N-YHS's institutional archive. Going forward from 2015, the Pictorial Archive is expected to continue to accrue additional images, but not in a centralized manner as in the past. Most images collected in the future are expected to be archived with their department or other such contextual records.