In the wake of Pearl Harbor, New York mobilized for war, and the New-York Historical Society was no exception. As the city braced for possible enemy attack, the New-York Historical Society took precautions to protect the collection as its staff members departed for the Armed Forces and defense factories. Nine New-York Historical Society staff members saw active duty during WWII. William R. Baillie, Laidslaw Csierny, Joseph Gymory, George Henry Johnson, Vincent J. Marshall, Charles T. Miller, George Takacs, and Alexander J. Wall Jr. served in the Army. H. Maxson Holloway served in the Navy. Following the war, some of these men donated their uniforms and accouterments to the museum (now on display in WWII & NYC).
In 1942, the American Red Cross set up a surgical dressing workroom in two ground-floor galleries of the New-York Historical Society. The all-female volunteer unit rolled a staggering four million surgical sponges by December 1944. Once completed, the 4″ x 8″ dressings were boxed, shipped overseas, and sterilized for use in evacuation hospitals. The Army Medical Corps reported back that “the splendid surgical sponges prepared by you actually have gone to war. We are using [them] in treating Allied battle casualties, directly behind the lines.”
The spirit of service continues at the New-York Historical Society to this day, from the programs and exhibitions we present to increase public understanding of American history, to the auxiliary initiatives taken up by our staff and trustees to support our community. On the day after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New-York Historical immediately reopened its doors so that thousands of children and families from across the city could learn and have some fun, while schools remained closed and widespread power outages. Admission proceeds were redirected to help cover the cost of damages inflicted on some of our city’s important historic sites through the Historic House Trust of New York City’s Emergency Maintenance Fund.
Times may change, but here’s to hoping that New Yorkers’ commitment to their history and public service always remain strong.