Missouri Historical Society: The First 50 Years (1866–1916)

8, August 2016

The Missouri Historical Society celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2016. This is the first in a three-part series on the organization's history.

Black-and-white photo of cannonballs in St. Louis Arsenal yard, 1866Cannonballs stacked in the St. Louis Arsenal yard in 1866—the year of MHS's founding and the year after the Civil War. Photo by Emil Boehl. Missouri Historical Society collections.

In 1866, St. Louis was a city in the throes of great change. Longtime residents were becoming increasingly aware that the city’s history was disappearing into the mists of time. Recognizing the need to preserve whatever they reasonably could, a group of prominent men gathered together in the Old Courthouse on August 11, 1866, and formed the Missouri Historical Society (MHS).

With an eye focused not only on what was already old but also historically valuable for future generations, the Society reached out to the community for assistance in gathering its first collections. Within the first months, Missouri attorney general Samuel Simpson donated five volumes of Missouri Militia records documenting the actions of its service during the Civil War, an event that had ended only one year earlier. Other donations included artifacts from the ancient Native American mounds that surrounded St. Louis but were rapidly disappearing as a result of urban and agricultural development. Historically important individuals were asked to contribute their reminiscences, and photographers were encouraged to go forth and document those places that were disappearing from the landscape. These items became the core of our present collections.

Black-and-white photo of Thomas Jefferson statue dedicationThe statue of Thomas Jefferson that sits inside the Museum today was dedicated in 1913. Photo by William Swekosky. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Like many fledgling organizations, MHS struggled to survive in its early years. The Society nearly collapsed in the 1890s after membership had fallen drastically and heavy debt was incurred after the purchase of the Thomas Larkin Mansion for use as a permanent home. A shrewd reorganization effort allowed the institution to continue, but its true salvation came in the form of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. A renewed interest in the city’s history and the benefit of a revenue surplus generated by the World’s Fair brought new life to MHS. By 1916 the Society was celebrating its 50th anniversary in its new home in the Jefferson Memorial Building, which had opened to great fanfare three years earlier. Perseverance had kept the Society alive. Now with its new Forest Park location and dedicated professional staff, the Missouri Historical Society was able to move forward and become a highly respected and nationally recognized institution.

—Christopher Gordon, Director of Library and Collections

Membership appeal