History of the MHS

The Founding

On 24 January 1791, the Rev. Jeremy Belknap invited nine like-minded Bostonians to join him in creating what they would call simply, "The Historical Society," now the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest organization in the United States devoted to collecting materials for the study of American history.

As he envisioned it, the society would become a repository and a publisher collecting, preserving,and disseminating resources for the study of American history. Through their pledges of family papers, books, and artifacts from their personal collections, the founding members made the Society the nation's first historical repository by the end of their initial meeting. With the appearance of their first title at the start of 1792, they also made the MHS the nation's first institution of any description to publish in its field.

In the absence of any other American historical repositories in the 1790s, the MHS took on a broadly national role, one still apparent in both its collections and its publications. As other historical institutions were founded elsewhere, including the New-York Historical Society in 1804 and the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, the Society started to direct special attention to Boston, Massachusetts, and New England. The continuing legacy of its early years as the nation's only repository of American history, however, is a program of collections and activities of national and international importance.

The Society Today

The MHS is an invaluable resource for the study of American history, life, and culture. Its collections tell the story of America through over twelve million documents, artifacts, and national treasures, including the personal papers of three presidents—John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Since 1791, the Society has nurtured and spread knowledge and the appreciation of American history by preserving and enriching its collections, providing tools and services to support research, and cultivating scholarship. The MHS is committed to the principle that knowledge of our nation’s past is fundamental to its future. We desire to reach a broad audience and to illustrate for them the importance of history in understanding change and continuity in our world.

Over the past decade, the MHS has made great strides in making its resources available to a wider public. This has been greatly enhanced by the use of technology, especially through an improved website. ABIGAIL, the Society's online catalog, and collection guides open the collections to all, and digitization efforts have made increasing amounts of material available to researchers. Library visitation is growing because of the on-line presence of the MHS and an increase in the number of research fellowships offered. A new endowed acquisitions fund has made it possible to add to collections at a time when purchasing items has become more competitive.

Public programs and exhibitions play a central role in reaching the public and dispensing knowledge. The MHS offers a full roster of engaging programs including talks by established and emerging historians, history makers, and public leaders on topics that range from current events to the lives of individuals who shaped our country. Exhibitions highlight the Society's collections or important themes and events, attracting a growing audience. 

The Society's education initiatives, designed to enhance the teaching of history to school-age audiences, have grown substantially. Annually, the MHS provides workshops to over five hundred teachers from across the country focused on the use of primary documents to enrich the classroom experience. Teacher fellows use the MHS collections to develop new lesson plans that are added to our increasing catalog of online educational resources available to educators everywhere. The MHS is now the state sponsor of Massachusetts History Day, which engages over a thousand students statewide each year. These efforts are augmented by a number of on-site student programs.

Through its activities, the MHS has built a national and international network of scholars who work in the fields in which we focus. The MHS has added fellowships and seminars and presented much-praised conferences.   Publications are attractive and include exhibition catalogs to further knowledge of MHS collections. The Adams Papers documentary edition has increased its output in addition to producing several popular works and providing increased digital access to unpublished materials and online tools. 

By expanding the range of MHS activities to embrace public programs and exhibitions, the organization has been building a community of Members who share an interest in history, enjoy the social as well as the intellectual attraction of events at the MHS, spread the word through friends and family, and build public support for history and for the MHS. 

The MHS collections and the community of scholars, researchers, teachers, and writers we serve provide the foundation for the Society’s educational and public history programs. By building interest in and support for American history, these programs directly serve the MHS mission in themselves, but they also strengthen the Society as an organization dedicated to continuing to preserve and expand its collections and other research activities. After a decade of transformation and growth the Society finds itself poised to become an even greater influence in shaping the future of our nation.


A Timeline of MHS History

This interactive timeline highlights the Society’s previous locations and pivotal moments in its history. Drag within the timeline area to discover more, or follow some of the key points in our history using the arrow buttons beneath the timeline. Click on any individual event to read a complete description.