In January 1844, a group of Maryland residents gathered in the offices of the Maryland Colonization Society at the Baltimore City Post Office and established the Maryland Historical Society. They proposed collecting the "remnants of the state’s history" and preserving their heritage through research, writing, and publications. By the end of the first year, the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) had 150 members. The group quickly outgrew their rooms at the post office and their fireproof safe at the Franklin Street Bank could not hold the growing number of documents and artifacts donated to the institution.
The new committee started work on a grand home for Baltimore’s new cultural institution, including space for an art gallery. They hired Robert Carey Long, Jr., who designed the Athenaeum, a four-story "Italian palazzo" style building with a unique feature for the preservation-minded historical society: fireproof closets.
Membership and donations increased during the 1850s after the society settled in the Athenaeum. Visitors came out for art exhibitions and donated paintings and statues to the society collections. Baltimore philanthropist, George Peabody donated to support the creation of an index of Maryland records in the London Public Record Office and, in 1867, established the society’s first publications fund. Additionally, the MdHS continued its work protecting state history and late in the nineteenth century the state transferred government records into their care.
Like many historical societies around the country, the Maryland Historical Society saw major changes around the turn of the century. Education became an important part of the group’s mission in many historical societies and women gained full membership. Annie Leakin Sioussat and Lucy Harwood Harrison were among the first female members of the Maryland Historical Society and spent decades volunteering their time and services. In 1906, the MdHS launched the Maryland Historical Magazine, a quarterly journal featuring new research and writing on Maryland history.
MdHS moved into its current home at 201 West Monument Street in 1919 soon after the end of World War I. The new building, the former residence of Baltimore philanthropist Enoch Pratt with a state-of-the-art fireproof addition, came as a gift from Mary Washington Keyser, whose husband, H. Irvine Keyser, had been an active member of the society for forty-three years.
As their predecessors had done after the Civil War, MdHS leaders started an effort to collect "the relics" of the recent Great War. In 1920, the state legislature formed a committee including former governor and historical society president Edwin Warfield. This group comprised the Historical Division of the state’s War Records Commission and served as the "official organ" of the federal government in collecting and compiling the military records of those Marylanders who served in World War I. The society initiated a similar agreement during World War II.
The society began expanding the Monument Street facility in 1953 and, in 1968, added the Thomas and Hugg building named after William and John Thomas. Designed by a local firm, Meyer, Ayers & Saint, the new building includes exhibition space, an auditorium, work rooms, storage space, and "to supplement the present Confederate Room--a Civil War Union Room." In 1981, the society added the France-Merrick Wing to the Thomas and Hugg Building.
Perhaps no other object in the holdings of the Maryland Historical Society attracts more visitors than the original manuscript of Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner. In 1953, Mrs. Thomas C. Jenkins purchased the document from the Walters Art Gallery for $26,400, the same price the gallery had paid for it in 1933 at a New York auction. Jenkins provided additional funding for its display in a carved marble niche. She had previously donated Key family portraits and a room for their display. One hundred forty years after Key penned his famous verse, state and local dignitaries gathered to rededicate this American icon on September 14, 1954.
A newly renovated and expanded Maryland Historical Society opened in November 2003, amidst much fanfare and publicity. The facility now includes the Beard Pavilion and the Carey Center for Maryland Life which features nearly generous exhibition space for museum and library exhibitions, and new storage space for museum collections. In keeping with the founders’ passion for telling Maryland’s story, the society’s leadership, staff, and volunteers carry out today’s mission, securing the institution’s respected place among contemporary cultural organizations. As it has for the past 164 years, the Maryland Historical Society remains the one of the premier institutions for Maryland history.