E-mail Print PDF
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

When the New-York Historical Society’s enlarged building opened in April 1939, the first floor exhibition galleries were almost completely devoted to maritime history. Immediately to the right, inside the Society’s front door on Central Park West, was the Naval History Room, with a display of swords, engravings of naval skirmishes and portraits of naval officers, manuscripts, ships’ logs, and a threedimensional half-model of the USS Monitor. To the left of the front door, and filling as well the entire south side of the building, there were three rooms devoted to the Port of New York and the city’s shipping industry. Rope ran down the length of the long gallery walls to lead visitors up to a life-size model of a ship’s prow, complete with a lookout deck. On display were ship models and ships’ wheels, globes, prints, paintings, and many other nautical relics. The large amount of floor space devoted to the Port of New York was partly due to the harbor’s primacy in the city’s history: the port became the busiest and most important in the United States by 1810 and the most important in the world by the time of the Civil War. The items in the exhibit addressed New York’s nineteenth-century maritime history in the context of its great importance to the city’s economic, cultural, occupational, and political life. the objects in the Naval History galleries originally were in the collection of the Naval History Society, formed in 1909 by a group of maritime history enthusiasts including Colonel John Sanford Barnes (1836–1911), Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich (1847–1925), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). The society was incorporated in 1912, but by the early 1920s, a proposal arose to merge the both the collections and the members of the Naval History Society, Ship Model Society, and New York Port Society into those of the New-York Historical Society, which could then double as a national Naval and Maritime Museum. The concept seemed viable enough for Roosevelt, who had been assistant secretary of the Navy from 1913–20, to become involved in talks with the Historical Society’s Executive Board; the plan eventually was deemed unfeasible. Nevertheless, Colonel James Barnes (1866–1936), president of the Naval History Society and son of its founder, realized that his organization could no longer take proper care of its collections, which were then housed in a room in midtown Manhattan. Barnes arranged for their donation and transfer to the New-York Historical Society in July 1925, and that fall the Naval History Society members became associate members of the Historical Society. Part of the agreement required the Society to exhibit the Naval History Society’s objects in the newly expanded building. While not always on view today, the Naval History Society’s rich visual, textual, and manuscript collections, in addition to other interesting materials documenting New York’s maritime past, remain a valuable part of the New-York Historical Society’s library and museum holdings—on deck and available for use by new generations of maritime and naval historians.

 
A History of Maritime History
AT THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Click here to download this chapter as a PDF
JENNY GOTWALS