Delaware Public Media

History Matters: The history of the Delaware Historical Society

Apr 25, 2014

History Matters digs into the Delaware Historical Society’s archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day news.

In honor of the Delaware Historical Society celebrating its 150th anniversary next month, April's History Matters examines how the DHS came to be, where it is now, and where group intends to go in the future.

"Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft." - Winston Churchill

History Matters: Delaware Historical Society

Delaware Public Media traces the history of the Delaware Historical Society.(Producer/Videographer/Editor: Ben Szmidt)

After several attempts at starting a historical society as early as 1820, The Delaware Historical Society began life as the Historical Society of Delaware in May of 1864, during the height of the Civil War.

"It was probably the Civil War that gave that actual impetus for it to come about, and for people to understand that things can be easily lost and the history can be easily lost," said Michele Anstine, Assistant CEO and Chief Program Officer of the Delaware Historical Society. "So they wanted a place where they could actually bring all of these things together and be able to teach successive generations about the importance of the history and the heritage of the state."

As expected for the times, the founders of the DHS were largely wealthy, white males who were from families with deep Delaware roots like William Thompson Read - son of George Read II. Regardless of their make up, Historical Society CEO Scott Loehr said that the founders had the right mindset.

"They had a sense of history, knew the value of history, and knew that the historical society was something that was needed for the state," said Loehr.

Because Delaware was one of the last states in the area to establish a state historical society, the DHS largely followed the models set by its predecessors.

"It [was created] for the elucidation of history, particularly as it relates to Delaware," said Loehr. "It was about preservation, but it was also about publications and reading papers and having programs. As the society evolved over the next 150 years, it's refined that mission." While research and publication are still a major function of the DHS, it has aggressively expanded its collections to include over 3 million objects, books, manuscripts, and images from as far back as 1638 to the present day. "We really are a collection, a preserving, and then a presentation of history organization.

Ever since the organization's start in 1864, the DHS has remained a fixture on Market Street. The very first meetings were held in a rented room at the First Presbyterian Church that stood where the Wilmington Library stands today. It would be more than half a century before the society was able to find a place of their own when they acquired Wilmington's Old Town Hall in 1916. Old Town Hall remained the center for all of the DHS's functions and archives until the 1970s when the society went through a major expansion. In 1971, the society purchased the former Artisan's Bank on Market Street and converted the facility into their research library and administrative offices. Four years later, the society acquired the George Read II house, creating a new campus in Old New Castle. And in 1976, the society helped to create Willingtown Square, a collection of 19th century buildings adjacent to the Artisan's Bank building. "[The] buildings were slated to be demolished and were basically brought to the space so that they could be saved," said Anstine. "They represented earlier times and earlier periods in Wilmington's history."

The society's most recent property acquisition was in 1995 when they turned a former Woolworth's drugstore building into the Delaware History Museum, located across the street from the Artisan's Bank building. The museum contains both permanent and rotating exhibits highlighting different aspects of Delaware's history as well as a lecture hall and class rooms.

While the society has seen a lot of changes throughout its 150 year history, Loehr believes the key to their longevity has been their steadfast devotion to their original mission.

"There has been refinement to that mission, but the organization collects, preserves, and presents the history of Delaware in a variety of forms and through a variety of different medium," said Loehr. "The organization uses it's 3 million objects and items in the collection to educate, to inform, to give people today a perspective on the present and, perhaps, inform us to some degree on where we might be going.

The DHS already has big plans as to where they will be going in the near future. The society was tapped to help create and run the Center for African American Heritage to help enrich the history and heritage of Delaware's African Americans.

"[The Center of African American Heritage] is certainly a very important initiative for us," said Anstine. "We're looking forward to really where that can take us as far as growing outward, reaching a new public, and... perhaps making some other friends along the way."

The Center for African American Heritage will be headquartered on the DHS's Wilmington Campus and is currently slated to be completed in the spring of 2016.

Despite the bright future of the DHS, one cannot overlook the important role the society's work and collections have and continue to play in Delaware.

"Without [the collections], we are uninformed, we are ignorant of certain things," said Loehr. "No one wants to see a society ignorant of it's past and of it's history."

This piece is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.