Worcester has a remarkable story and each of us is part of its history. Since 1875, collecting, preserving and sharing Worcester’s history has been the exciting adventure of Worcester Historical Museum. At the corner of Elm and Chestnut streets in the heart of downtown, in an annual calendar of programs, exhibits, lectures, family events, social activities and more, the Museum is a place of scholarship, enjoyment and assembly for everyone. As the living history album of community, Worcester Historical Museum is the caretaker of our Worcester…past, present and future.
For 140 years—from formation in 1875 to incorporation in 1877—the Museum’s responsibility as the keepers of the city’s collective history has been unique. The stories of people, industries, families, neighborhoods, shared experiences and more—dreams and realities, both good and bad—are the “treasure” of today’s Worcester Historical Museum. They are the “historical matter” that make us Worcester.
It was 1875.
In his January 4, 1875, inaugural address, Mayor Clark Jillson spoke of Worcester as a “city of workshops” and indicated that most of its residents were dependent on mechanical industry. The once homogenous city was rapidly changing as nearly 12,000 of its 41,105 population were immigrants who had chosen Worcester as their part of the “golden land.”
The first Union Station at Washington Square (today the site of a soon-to-be-opened hotel) was occupied, railroad tracks ran across the Common, the Worcester Board of Trade (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) was just one year old, and the Civil War monument (restored in 2016) had been completed the previous summer.
Most of America prepared to celebrate the country’s 100th birthday by creating historical and patriotic organizations. Worcester was no exception. On January 21, 1875, Samuel Staples, a local grocer, invited four of his friends to join him at his home at 1 Lincoln Place to share his interest and excitement in history—“to form a Society for the purpose of increasing an interest in Archeological Science, and to rescue from oblivion such historical matter as would otherwise be lost.”
Three days later, on Saturday, January 24, three of the invited four men met with Staples and set in motion the creation of the Worcester Society of Antiquity, today’s Worcester Historical Museum.
“…for those who may come after us.”
By April of 1877, the membership had grown, collections were being amassed, fascinating papers of local history were being read and published, and corporate organization under the laws of the Commonwealth had been achieved. The journey begun in 1875 was truly secured as Staples had predicted “not for today, but a hundred years to come.”
In October of 1877 the Society of Antiquity opened its first “rooms” in what was then the Worcester National Bank building at 11 Foster Street. Books, manuscripts, portraits, autographs, maps and more arrived as donations for all parts of the community. The library and display rooms were open every Tuesday evening. The response of the community—both collections and visits—was so significant that the organization needed more space and the hours were soon expanded to include Tuesday and Saturday afternoons from 2 to 4 p.m.
With its collections of every form of community history growing by leaps and bounds, Stephen Salisbury III, a member, offered the lot at 39 Salisbury and a gift of $25,000 toward the construction of an appropriate building to serve as museum, library and meeting space. Work began in 1891 on what organization president Ellery Crane described a place where “we might display our books and historical relics to reasonable advantage; where we could work, not for ourselves alone, but for those who may come after us.”
The Romanesque Revival style brick building, still standing at Wheaton Square, designed by Worcester architects Barker & Nourse, opened in grand style on June 22, 1892. It would be the organization’s home for ninety-six years. As collections and scholarship continued to grow, as publications expanded, as women were invited to membership, and as an exhibition program was initiated, the organization narrowed its mission to focus more specifically on Worcester. In 1919, after years of “fitful and sometimes heated discussion,” the name was changed from Worcester Society of Antiquity to Worcester Historical Society. In 1978, nearly forty years ago, a second name change—this time to Worcester Historical Museum—signaled a continued shift in focus and mission to be exclusively Worcester, a cultural institution preserving and sharing the stories of us…exclusively Worcester. Ours.
An historic house museum.
The goal of any museum is to collect comprehensively and to make its collection accessible to scholars and the community. After years of collecting everything of local interest from tools to fire arms and fashion to furniture, in 1980 Worcester Historical Museum assumed responsibility for its largest artifact, Salisbury Mansion. Built in 1772, Salisbury Mansion is one of the city’s few remaining 18th century structures. After four years of extensive research and restoration, Salisbury Mansion opened in October of 1984 as Worcester’s first historic house museum. As an extension of the Museum’s galleries, Salisbury Mansion is another opportunity to engage in the history of our Worcester. The Museum’s restoration of the Mansion to tell the story of one family’s role in Worcester’s evolution from an agricultural town to industrial giant transitioned the building from a seldom-visited office facility to an active contributor to Worcester historical and cultural landscape.
Looking to the future.
As the Museum expanded its role as Worcester’s storytellers, increased community participation resulted in exciting new programs, taking the Museum in new directions. “Water Street: World Within a World,” was the first of many exhibits to extend Museum partnerships deep into the community. “Fire,” in collaboration with the Worcester Fire Department, initiated a continuing tradition of partnerships with the City. Centennial exhibits for Norton Company and Wyman-Gordon reinforced Worcester Historical Museum’s role as the keeper of the city’s industrial past.
As Worcester Historical Museum “constantly grew larger”—collections, exhibitions, and community partnerships--the facility at 39 Salisbury was closed and, in February of 1988, Worcester Historical Museum moved to the former Horticultural Hall at 30 Elm Street. The new headquarters in the heart of downtown nearly doubled program, gallery and collections space, allowing the Museum to offer a greater range of programs and services to a broader, more diverse audience. A $3 million renovation of the building completed, collections securely rehoused, library shelves stocked, and exhibits in place, today’s Worcester Historical Museum opened with a gala celebration on the weekend of October 1 and 2, 1988.
At the corner of Elm and Chestnut streets, the people of Worcester tell their stories.
Worcester Historical Museum continues to grow, expanding its central role as the keepers of collective memory. Partnerships like the Latino History Project of Worcester, participation in CultureLEAP, and creation of the hands-on Alden Family Gallery engage residents of all ages and interests. The Museum’s library collection serves as an essential resource serving researchers, students and the curious. These unique, comprehensive resources include more than 7,000 volumes, 500,000 images and 4,000 linear feet of manuscripts dating from the 17th century to today. Ten of thousands of artifacts in the museum collection are the material evidence of centuries of life in the heart of the Commonwealth. And, both collections grow every day.
Who will tell your story?
Worcester’s history is constantly unfolding as each of us makes history every day. Worcester Historical Museum captures the stories of our common past to share with generations to come. As we strive to make Worcester Historical Museum experience ever more participatory, exciting and inclusive, the key to success is community participation. By sharing, what was once mine or yours, the story of Worcester becomes OURS.
As founder Samuel Staples predicted 140 years ago, Worcester Historical Museum is “not for today, but for [the next] hundred years to come.” Your memories, treasures and participation--your investment--make our stories available for generations to come.
Let’s make history together. It’s an exciting adventure.