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Founded in 1844, the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) is the state’s oldest continuously operating cultural institution. In keeping with the founders’ commitment to preserve the remnants of Maryland’s past, MdHS remains the premier institution for state history. With over 350,000 objects and seven million books and documents, this institution now serves upward of 100,000 people through its museum, library, press, and educational programs.
A Brief History
In January 1844, the founders gathered in the Maryland Colonization Society rooms of the Baltimore City post office, selected John Spear Smith as their first president, appointed officers, and formed committees to draft a constitution, write a membership circular, and find a suitable meeting place. They proposed collecting the "remnants of the state’s history" and preserving their heritage through research, writing, and publications. By the end of the first year, there were 150 members. The society’s undeniable early success inspired plans for a permanent home. They had already outgrown the post office rooms and increasing numbers of donated documents and artifacts overflowed the fireproof safe at the Franklin Street Bank. The new committee planned a grand home for Baltimore’s new cultural institution, including space for an art gallery. One of America’s foremost architects, Robert Carey Long, designed the Athenaeum, a four-story "Italian palazzo" building with, most important for the preservation-minded historical society, fireproof closets.
Membership and donations increased during the 1850s after the society settled in the Athenaeum. Visitors patronized art exhibitions in high numbers, the collection of paintings and statuary grew, and donations came from a variety of people including Baltimore philanthropist, George Peabody, who funded an index of Maryland records in the London Public Record Office and in 1867 established the society’s first publications fund. Additionally, the MdHS continued its work protecting state history and late in the nineteenth century the state transferred government records into their care.
The leaders of MdHS grew confident and secure during the remainder of the century. The collections provided researchers with the material needed to tell more of Maryland’s history. Published papers and documents sold and exchanged across the country took the story far beyond its borders. Additionally, the society’s leaders had met their self-proclaimed obligation to educate the public through exhibits of fine art.
An era of great change for the nation’s historical societies came with the turn of the century. Education of the general public, and of school children, became part of the mission in many historical societies and women gained full membership. Among the first female members of the Maryland Historical Society were Annie Leakin Sioussat and Lucy Harwood Harrison, both of whom spent decades volunteering their time and services. In 1906 the MdHS launched the Maryland Historical Magazine, a quarterly journal featuring the best new work on Maryland history. This venerable publication is now in its 105th consecutive year.
The organization moved to its current home at 201 West Monument Street in 1919. The former residence of Baltimore philanthropist Enoch Pratt, with a state-of-the-art fireproof addition, came as a gift from Mary Washington Keyser, whose husband, H. Irvine Keyser, had been an active member of the society for forty-three years. The new space allowed for more displays and positioned the society as the logical caretaker of Maryland treasures. Many researchers looked for evidence that connected them to the colony’s founding families or Revolutionary War veterans in order to claim membership in societies such as the Society of the Ark and the Dove or the Sons, or Daughters, of the American Revolution.
In addition to their ongoing mission to preserve and publish Maryland’s history, the leaders of the society took responsibility for recent history. As their predecessors had done after the Civil War, society leaders stood at the forefront of collecting "the relics" of the recent Great War. In 1920, the state legislature formed a committee of three that included former governor and historical society president Edwin Warfield. This group comprised the Historical Division of the state’s War Records Commission and served as the "official organ" of the federal government in collecting and compiling the military records of those Marylanders who served in World War I. The society initiated a similar agreement during World War II. Additionally, education ranked as a high priority, and the post-war MdHS reached out to the city’s public schools with teacher workshops and tours.
Educational activities were only part of MdHS programming. The society began expanding the Monument Street facility in 1953 and added the Thomas and Hugg building in 1968, named for benefactors William and John Thomas. The rooms included a modern wing with exhibition space, an auditorium with audio-visual equipment, work rooms, storage space, and "to supplement the present Confederate Room-a Civil War Union Room." In 1981, the society added the France-Merrick Wing to the Thomas and Hugg Building, "a tribute to the Trustees of the Jacob and Annita France Foundation and Robert G. Merrick."
Perhaps no other object in the holdings of the Maryland Historical Society attracts more visitors than the original manuscript of Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner. In 1953, Mrs. Thomas C. Jenkins purchased the document from the Walters Art Gallery for $26,400, the same price the gallery had paid for it in 1933 at a New York auction. Jenkins provided additional funding for its display in a carved marble niche. She had previously donated Key family portraits and a room for their display. One hundred forty years after Key penned his famous verse, state and local dignitaries gathered to rededicate this American icon on September 14, 1954.
The growing diversity of Maryland’s population prompted a dramatic shift in the study of American history. Politics, wars, and the lives of notable men gave way to research and fascination with previously neglected fields such as women’s history, black history, and ethnic histories. With ethnic studies now a major feature of American historical study, local genealogical societies sprang up across the country as researchers devoted their energies and careers to uncovering their pasts.
At the MdHS, the numbers of people searching for their own family’s histories increased dramatically. The library’s renowned collections of church and parish records, ship passenger lists, manuscripts, and the meticulously copied indexes to early wills and land tracts gave researchers missing pieces of their genealogical puzzles. Indefatigable librarians and volunteers assisted both the novice and professional family historian. Members of the Maryland Genealogical Society, local patriotic societies, and numerous organizations, continue the tradition. In 1994, the society celebrated its 150th anniversary in traditional style.
A newly renovated and expanded Maryland Historical Society opened in November 2003, amidst much fanfare and publicity. The facility now includes the Beard Pavilion and the Carey Center for Maryland Life which features nearly 30,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space for museum and library exhibitions, and new storage space for museum collections. The MdHS also serves more then 80,000 school students and teachers annually, both on-site and across the state, making use of the outstanding MdHS collections to teach future generations Maryland’s rich place in the nation’s past. The renovated library, now the H. Furlong Baldwin Library, includes more than double its previous space and is equipped with wireless technology. Today’s researchers work in a well-lit and spacious room with access to society holdings as well as internet access to collections around the world.
In keeping with the founders’ passion for telling Maryland’s story, the society’s leadership, staff, and volunteers carry out today’s mission, securing the institution’s respected place among contemporary cultural organizations. As it has for the past 164 years, the Maryland Historical Society remains the premier institution for Maryland history.
For more on the history of the Maryland Historical Society see “A History of the Maryland Historical Society, 1844–2000,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 101 (2006).
The H. Furlong Baldwin Library’s collections are both diverse and substantive. The library enables researchers, teachers, and students to see for themselves the records of the past, and to study and learn from its many treasures. The library’s collections include 60,000 books, 800,000 photographs, 5 million manuscripts, 6,500 prints and broadsides, 1 million pieces of printed ephemera, extensive genealogy indexes, and more, reflecting the history of Maryland and its people. These collections are accessible to visitors on-line and at the MdHS campus in Baltimore.
The MdHS museum features an incredible collection that celebrates Maryland’s rich and diverse history, from 18th- and 19th-century paintings and silver to 20th-century objects of everyday life. Among its more than 350,000 objects, the most significant collection of Maryland cultural artifacts in the world, are over 2,000 paintings including the largest collection of works of art by members of the Peale family, a significant collection of maritime-related artifacts, and important collections of 19th-century Maryland painted and inlaid furniture, silver, quilts, costumes, ceramics, dolls and toys.
Since its founding in 1844, the society has been committed to publishing new scholarship on the state’s history and material culture. Through books and the quarterly Maryland Historical Magazine, MdHS publications provide a forum for Maryland topics of scholarly and general interest. The society sponsors a dynamic schedule of educational programs and special events to make Maryland’s history come alive for visitors of all ages. Lectures, symposia, living history performances, weekend programs for children, gallery tours, and many other public programs, held both on- and off-site, promote pride and understanding of Maryland’s rich history. MdHS school based programming provides Maryland teachers and their students with important supplemental materials and experiential learning opportunities to augment classroom teaching on Maryland and United States social studies topics.