What’s Inside: The Maryland Historical Society

Posted: November 12, 2015 by saacua in Inside the Archives
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Guest post by: Bobby McHugh Westfall 

The Maryland Historical Society was incorporated in 1843 through the efforts of Brantz Mayer, a Baltimore attorney, and first met in 1844.  With historical records being treated carelessly throughout the states that made up the original thirteen colonies, societies organized to ensure their preservation for future generations. Maryland was no exception to these conditions, so in 1844 the Maryland Historical Society was founded, with its charter specifying that “its purpose was to collect documents.”[1] To this end, the state’s General Assembly passed a resolution to donate duplicate or decaying pre-revolutionary documents to the society, while the society solicited donations from Maryland’s societal elite in an 1844 circular, citing the risk of Maryland falling behind other states in preserving its history. [2]marylandhistoric171922mary_0007

In addition to preserving historical documents, the Maryland Historical Society functioned in its early decades as an elite social organization, growing as it gave the men of Maryland’s aristocracy, “within the realm of their historical work, a gentleman’s club where they opened a chess room, read the daily newspapers in the periodicals room, and gathered for monthly soirees.”[3] During this period the society also cemented its financial longevity with the establishment of an endowment in 1854, which was specifically intended to support only scholarly work and preservation of documents, not the social events or art gallery hosted by the society. This period of growth in the 1850s was ended abruptly by the bitter divisions of the Civil War which, reflecting broader conditions in border-state Maryland, set the society’s members against each other while current events distracted members from the task of preserving history. The society ended the war with substantially fewer members than when it began.[4]

The historical society’s mission grew in the twentieth century, with an emerging focus on recent history. Immediately following the First World War, the Maryland Historical Society began work to collect the records of its history, including “individual records of those who had served their country, the histories of military units, and accounts of activities that ‘contributed to the war effort’” as well as “ephemera such as posters, bonds, and photographs”[5] related to the war. When World War II broke out, the society’s membership built on the experience of preserving those records. Society President George Radcliffe advocated for the Maryland Historical Society to take on the job of preserving Maryland’s World War II records, and was granted the position in 1945.[6]

The Maryland Historical Society has a long history of collecting the records of its home state, and Maryland itself is “are deeply indebted to this institution for preserving much of [its] priceless archival heritage.”[7] In the present day, working with a budget of $2.5 million, the society preserves a collection numbering more than 7 million documents.[8] By preserving Maryland’s history, the Maryland Historical Society is an integral part of the communities that make up the state of Maryland. As the present executive director Mark Letzer describes it, the Maryland Historical society is Maryland’s memory and the repository of its past.[9]

In addition to its work as part of the first wave of American historical record preservation in the early nineteenth century, the Maryland Historical Society has contributed to the archival field through its commitment to publishing historical material. Early in the institution’s life, MdHS publications consisted of papers read by members and guests at meetings, covering a wide range of historical topics. Only a small number—usually one or two a year—were published as pamphlets, due to limited funds. This changed in the post-Civil War era when a donation from Baltimore philanthropist George Peabody, enriched the society’s endowment enough to support a larger publication program.[10]

The increase in funding enabled the society to publish more copies of its own collection items, of which only one, the journal of Charles Carrol of Carrolton, had been published prior to funding.[11] One of the most significant publications of the MdHS began in what Shelley calls the period of “Fund Publications.” The first volume of the Archives of Maryland series was published in 1883, under the authorization and funding of the state government. This series made colonial and revolutionary-era Maryland records available to readers and continued to be published by the MdHS until 1972, eventually reaching 72 volumes.[12] The series has been a significant source of information for numerous scholarly works on colonial Maryland including a study of colonial figure Dr. Thomas Gerard, begun as a genealogical study, and an examination of Protestant religious influences in originally Catholic Maryland, written in Indiana with the help of the Archives of Maryland series.[13] The series continues to be published by the Maryland State Archives, covering more recent documents.

By the early twentieth century, the society was ready to move into more organized, regular publishing, and launched a periodical, the quarterly Maryland Historical Magazine. Early on, the content of the magazine consisted mainly of articles on archival “source material, family genealogies, and articles on particular phases of Maryland history.”[14] This expanded in the middle of the century, as routine society news was moved to a separate pamphlet, and the magazine began to include book reviews. Shelley rates the magazine as the MDHS“most essential activity”[15] of the society after its preservation of historical manuscripts.

Today, the MdHS continues to publish the magazine, making issues published through the end of 2009 available online for free.[16] Furthermore, the society has expanded its publications to include books. There are currently 35 books in print from a catalog of over 100, distributed with the cooperation of Johns Hopkins University Press.[17] Through these outlets, the Maryland Historical Society builds on its contribution to the archival field as a groundbreaking institution in publishing original scholarly material based on the records it collects, both preserving history for future generations and participating in the scholarship that preservation facilitates.

Bibliography

“Archives of Maryland, All Volumes.” Archives of Maryland Online. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000072/html/index.html

“Books,” Maryland Historical Society. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://www.mdhs.org/publications/press-mdhs/books

Shelley, Fred. “The Publication Program of the Maryland Historical Society.” American Archivist 15, no. 4 (1952): 311.

“Maryland Historical Magazine,” Maryland Historical Society. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://www.mdhs.org/publications/maryland-historical-magazine

“A History of the Maryland Historical Society, 1844–2000,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 101 (2006): 401–501

Case, Welsey. “Mark Letzer named Maryland Historical Society’s executive director.” Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), Mar 13. 2013.

Ham, F. Gerald. “Archival Standards and the Posner Report: Some Reflections on the Historical Society Approach.” American Archivist 28, no. 2 (1965): 223–230

[1] “A History of the Maryland Historical Society, 1844–2000,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 101 (2006), p. 407.

[2] Ibid., 406–407

[3] Ibid., 420.

[4] Ibid., 420–423, 433

[5] Ibid., 457

[6] Ibid., 457, 475

[7] F. Gerald Ham, “Archival Standards and the Posner Report: Some Reflections on the Historical Society Approach,” American Archivist 28, no. 2 (1965): 223.

[8] Welsey Case, “Mark Letzer named Maryland Historical Society’s executive director,” Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), Mar 13. 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fred Shelley, “The Publication Program of the Maryland Historical Society,” American Archivist 15, no. 4 (1952): 311

[11] Ibid., p. 312

[12] “Archives of Maryland, All Volumes,” Archives of Maryland Online. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000072/html/index.html

[13] Shelley, 318.

[14] Ibid., 313.

[15] Ibid., 316.

[16] “Maryland Historical Magazine,” Maryland Historical Society. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://www.mdhs.org/publications/maryland-historical-magazine

[17] “Books,” Maryland Historical Society. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://www.mdhs.org/publications/press-mdhs/books

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