Category Archives: 175th Anniversary

Family Treasures: View from the index

For the last few years, NEHGS Curator of Special Collections Curt DiCamillo and I have been working on a special book called Family Treasures: 175 Years of Collecting Art and Furniture at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This lavishly illustrated volume showcases the most interesting and unique items in our collection. We contracted with Gerald W. R. Ward, American decorative arts expert and Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator Emeritus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to write the text and hired award-winning New York City photographer Gavin Ashworth. The result is an intimate portrait of our collection’s highlights, told in engaging narrative and 123 stunning full-color images. Continue reading Family Treasures: View from the index

‘Decidedly frosty’

Researchers unfamiliar with the history of the New England Historic Genealogical Society may assume women have been members since the organization’s founding in 1845. In fact, for the first fifty years, women were denied membership. In 1894, some members began to propose opening membership to women: “The reaction was haughty and dignified, if not decidedly frosty.” Women quietly persisted in submitting their applications to male members courageous enough to offer women’s names for election. When a woman’s name was read, though, it was greeted by silence. Several men went so far as to argue that “membership was limited to persons,” and women could not join because they were not “persons.” In early 1897 the issue was put to a vote by special ballot and passed, 451 in favor and fifty opposed, with thirteen offering qualified approval. On 2 February 1898, thirty-six women were nominated, twenty-nine accepted membership — and a new chapter began at NEHGS.[1] Continue reading ‘Decidedly frosty’

Salient points

Mrs. A. C. Burrage Jr. and Mrs. C. F. Ayer, ca. 1915.

One of my great-grandmothers[1] was a penniless orphan, the kind found in storybooks: beautiful and, secretly, a dispossessed member of a once proud family. As often happens when a child’s parents die young, much of this background was lost: my grandmother’s mother, born Sara Theodora Ilsley in Newark, was the daughter of a composer (and member of a distinguished family of musicians), granddaughter of one of the men who owned the yacht America,[2] and the descendant of a notable set of families along the Eastern Seaboard, including the first Congressman from New York City (and an aide-de-camp to General Washington)[3] and the Attorney-General of the Colony of Pennsylvania.[4]

Her descendants knew almost nothing of this when I was growing up, perhaps because of that break occasioned by Theodora’s father’s death in 1887 and her mother’s death in 1895, when she was fourteen. Continue reading Salient points

‘Palace of the People’

The Boston Public Library in 1895.

Boston has been a hub of learning since its founding. Today, genealogists have several major repositories where we can access huge collections. With NEHGS celebrating its 175th birthday, a nearby sister institution also has a significant anniversary in 2020. The Boston Public Library (BPL) was established just three years after NEHGS and has since held two big openings during the month of March. Continue reading ‘Palace of the People’

Lost in the mountains

Some of you may know of Herbert Brutus Ehrmann. A Harvard-educated attorney born in Louisville, Kentucky, he is most known for serving on the defense team for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of (and later executed for) murdering a paymaster at a shoe company during an armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1930. The JHC has a collection of his materials.

His wife Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann was equally well-known in the Boston community. Also born in Kentucky, she was raised in Rochester, New York, and married her husband in 1917. Partially in response to the injustice she saw in the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, she devoted her life to fight against capital punishment. Continue reading Lost in the mountains

From the age of dial-up

As one of the few remaining staff members from NEHGS Sesquicentennial in 1995, I thought I would share my memories as we celebrate the next quarter century. My journey at NEHGS began in 1986, as a high school student. I would make frequent visits to research my New England and Atlantic Canadian ancestry at 101 Newbury Street. An article about my research as a “Student Member” appeared in the NEHGS news magazine NEXUS (the acronym for New England Across the U.S.) in 1987. Later that year I would meet my future bride Anne-Marie and we both traveled into Boston to research together. Continue reading From the age of dial-up

In the beginning

Shortly after the founding of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845, the first issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register was published. The Register first appeared in January 1847 and was the visionary work of the Society’s first president, Charles Ewer. Mr. Ewer envisioned a society made up of hundreds of members, offering a physical library to house thousands of volumes of books, where a publishing program would expand upon the work of John Farmer’s Genealogical Register.

Mr. Ewer’s goal was to create a quarterly journal of history and genealogy that “would give members of the Society a further vehicle for research, discussion, and writing about New England’s Puritan fathers as well as fill a deficiency in historical literature by providing information on families.”[1] Additionally, he wanted to rescue records that were being destroyed in public offices and present them as transcribed and printed resources for future research.[2] Continue reading In the beginning

Preserving collections

Bookplate, Hinman’s Letters from the English Kings and Queens… (1836).

As the conservator at American Ancestors and NEHGS, I spend much of my time conserving our book and paper-based collections while also devoting a little bit of time to thinking about the future preservation of these items. This leaves relatively little time to reflect on past efforts by the organization to preserve these collections, but there is evidence that those efforts were considerable.

Preservation was a major part of the reason for founding the New England Historic Genealogical Society, as outlined in the original Charter.[1] Collecting and preservation have always been tied together; if you are going to collect books and manuscript materials, efforts will need to be taken to make sure they will be available for future generations – particularly important for a genealogical society, where generations really matter. Continue reading Preserving collections

The first women members

Fannie Wilder Brown’s application for membership.

Women’s history throughout American history has been an area of great interest to me. Women were not always permitted to be in the same areas as men, including universities, working as doctors and lawyers, and membership in organizations (including genealogical societies). Prior to 1898, women were not admitted as members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This changed in January 1897 when members voted by a special ballot, and the motion to admit women was approved by the majority of voters.[1] Once the ballot was over, the charter had to be changed, which required a petition to the Massachusetts legislature and approval by the governor. The petition was approved on 10 April 1897.[2] Continue reading The first women members

Heraldry in the news

On 3 February 2020, the Committee on Heraldry at the New England Historic Genealogical Society will celebrate its 156th birthday. Known as the oldest non-governmental heraldic body in the Western world, the Committee on Heraldry task themselves with maintaining and adding to a unique collection of coats of arms associated with American families, as well as organizing educational programming to introduce more people to this artistic side of family history.

The Committee is chaired by Ryan Woods, Executive Vice President and COO at NEHGS. Woods follows in the footsteps of his kinsman, Henry Ernest Woods, who was chairman of the Committee on Heraldry from 1890 to 1911. Today, the committee of twelve meets three to four times yearly, and is charged with reviewing applications and registrations of coats of arms for Americans. These include both historical and modern coats of arms. Continue reading Heraldry in the news