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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Membership Records

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

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on June 05, 2018
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

On November 20, 1804, eleven men met in the Picture Room of New York City’s City Hall and decided to organize themselves into a “Society” to collect and preserve materials related to the history of the United States and particularly to the state of New York. Through 1805, this group and several additional men who joined the initiative, developed a Constitution and By-Laws, elected officers, issued a public appeal for new members, and took other steps to form the New-York Historical Society. By April 1806, N-YHS had 29 members who are considered the original, or founding, members. From this foundation, N-YHS’s membership grew, with the number of dues-paying members reaching a few hundred by the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

There is a common thread over time in the meaning of membership in N-YHS: in exchange for financial support of the institution, a member was, and is, granted certain benefits in access to the collections, programs, and publications of the organization. But the differences over time are greater, and generally reflect the differences to be expected between an early nineteenth century private institution and a twenty-first century cultural enterprise open to the public.

One essential difference is that from the founding of N-YHS until 1938, members governed the institution. The members elected officers, formed the governing Executive Committee, took action on specific initiatives, represented N-YHS as delegates to other organizations, and voted on various management matters. Accordingly, the monthly membership meetings of N-YHS were a mix of business matters and program talks. Membership, therefore, was not broadly open to everyone. Although the procedure for accepting new members changed slightly over time, until 1917 candidates for membership needed to be nominated by a current member, approved by the Executive Committee, and elected by the members at the monthly meetings. From 1829 until about 1910, candidates could be refused admittance if three negative votes, or “black balls,” were cast.

By the early twentieth century, though, various changes within N-YHS, society at large, and the evolving place of cultural institutions in society had influenced a movement away from this earlier model of a membership organization. Increasing amounts of authority were placed in the hands of N-YHS’s governing Executive Committee until, in 1917, a by-law change eliminated the need for membership votes on any matters except for the election of officers. Prior to 1914, these elections had been held every year; a by-law change in 1914 extended the terms of office to three years. Consequently, after 1917, business meetings were held only every three years, and for narrow purposes. By-law changes in November 1937 completed the process of removing members from a governance and management role, and replacing the members’ Executive Committee with an independent Board of Trustees that elected officers and new trustees. Despite this reduction in the organizational role of members, certain formalities associated with membership lingered until the late twentieth century. These included the continued “election” of new members by the Board and, until 1982, the publication in the Annual Report of the names of all newly-elected and current members and of those who had died during the prior year.

Although the size of N-YHS’s membership grew considerably, it was not always steady. During the 1820s and 1830s, with no permanent home for its collections and membership gatherings, the organization faced declining membership and financial difficulties. A new home at New York University and new leadership in the early 1840s revitalized N-YHS and initiated intense efforts to recruit new and former members and to improve the membership and finances. Traces of these efforts can be found in this record group in the emergence from this period of member lists, collection receipt books, and other documents.

The documents here, especially the registers and payment records, also reflect N-YHS’s efforts over time to at least maintain its membership levels, though often the adoption of new membership categories or dues and fees structures were aimed at increasing support. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, N-YHS employed various categories of membership, each reflecting differences in associated required financial support and, to an extent, differences in access privileges. These differences are reflected in the various documentary forms, especially the registers, found in this record group. In its original 1805 Constitution, N-YHS established two categories of members: Resident Members (those residing in New York State) and Honorary Members (those residing elsewhere). Resident Members were required to pay $10 upon election, plus $2 annually thereafter; a one-time payment of $35 would make them Life Members, with commutation of the annual dues. Payments were optional for Honorary Members. Membership offered the significant privilege of being able to remove books from N-YHS’s library for up to three months. The privilege of removing materials was ended in 1839, though members continued to have access to the materials in the library.

About 1825, annual dues increased from $2 to $4, and then to $5 in 1829, with an increase to $50 in the Life Member fee. In 1844, the categories of membership changed: Resident (those residing in New York City or the immediate vicinity), Corresponding (those residing elsewhere), and Honorary Members (those residing elsewhere that N-YHS wished to recognize with a membership). The “initiation fee” (a term introduced in 1853) for Resident Members was $10, which included a one-time $5 fee and $5 for the first years’ dues, with $5 annual dues thereafter. A clause that Members could become Life Members by paying regularly for 15 successive years was added in 1844, but dropped within two years. Dues changed again in 1868 when Resident Members were required to pay a $20 fee for initiation and first year dues, and $10 annually thereafter, or a $100 fee for life membership.

In 1895, N-YHS ended the distinction, in place since 1805, between residents and non-residents. It eliminated the non-paying category of Corresponding Member, and included just one full category of membership, called simply Member. The initiation fee and annual dues remained at the 1868 levels. The Honorary category, reserved for special recognitions, also remained. In 1907, N-YHS adopted two new categories of membership, which encouraged and recognized larger contributions: Fellows ($1,000 donation) and Patrons ($5,000 donation). Both categories were life membership positions, and patrons had the right in perpetuity to appoint a successor, with some conditions (this benefit was later dropped for patrons joining after 1953). There was no change in the standard Member and Honorary Member categories. In 1918, another, non-paying category was added: Associate Member. Associates were to be elected in recognition of their historical research or other meritorious work in connection with American history. For example, this category was used in 1925 to admit all the members of the Naval History Society when its collection was transferred to N-YHS.

Aside from an important change in 1938, the membership categories and fees and dues established in 1907 and 1918 held until 1969. In 1938, the Member first year fee was reduced from $20 to $10; given that $10 was the annual dues amount, this change effectively ended the initiation fee, which had been in place since 1844. In 1963, in an explicit effort to widen its sources of income, N-YHS expanded its membership categories to include: Annual, or basic membership ($10 dues), Sustaining ($25 dues), Annual Fellow ($100 dues), Life ($250 one-time), Patron ($5,000 one-time), Sustaining Patron ($25,000 one-time), and Benefactor ($100,000 one-time). For the first time, N-YHS adopted a Corporate membership category, at $250; American Heritage Publishing Company and Time, Incorporated joined.

About 1967, the Fellows category was renamed Pintard Fellows. In 1968, the basic annual dues increased to $15, and then to $20 in 1972 and $25 in 1977. Also in 1972, a Research Member category with $10 dues was added, in part to mitigate the impact of a new $1 daily fee for library use by non-members. In 1982, when this record group closes, a new set of annual membership categories and fees were established: Friend ($1,000 and up), Pintard ($100 or more), Individual ($50), Family ($75), Senior ($25), and Student under 25 ($15). A Corporate membership fee was $1,000. One-time payment for life members was $5,000.

(Principal sources for the above were the various amended versions of N-YHS's Constitution and By-Laws, Annual Reports and R.W.G. Vail's Knickerbocker Birthday.)