A few months after the “The Historical Society of Delaware, Inc.” was founded on May 31, 1864, William Bringhurst presented the first recorded gift to the organization, “A Piece of the Boat in which Washington crossed the Delaware.” From that modest beginning, the society has acquired an extraordinary collection of more than 3,000,000 objects, books, documents, photographs, and maps related to Delaware’s past.
As former director, Charles Lyle, notes in the Forward for the Society’s 1984 catalog, Delaware Collections in the Museum of the Historical Society of Delaware, the growth of the Society’s collections was quite slow in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, for many years artifacts trickled in at the rate of only five or six new accessions a year, limited in large part by the Society’s lack of storage and exhibition space. Among the most important gifts dating from this early period were flags, uniforms, fire arms and other artifacts related to the Civil War.
Initially the Society was located in a single rented room in the Wilmington Institute. But, as collections grew, they moved into the Masonic Temple, then the Grand Opera House, and later the First Presbyterian Church, before acquiring a permanent home in historic Old Town Hall in 1916. But the onset of the World War I crippled fundraising efforts to pay the remaining debt on Old Town Hall, so it was rented to the Red Cross from 1917 to 1919, before falling into disrepair in the early 1920s. Several wealthy Wilmingtonians paid off the debt a few years later and Old Town Hall was restored in time for the Society’s grand re-opening in 1928.
By 1964 the museum collections had grown so large that the Society would need to convert Old Town Hall exclusively for use as a museum.So, in 1971 the Society purchased the former Artisans Bank building across Market Street from Old Town Hall to house its burgeoning library collections. In fact, the 1970s proved to be a watershed decade in the growth of the Historical Society of Delaware. In 1975 the Society took possession of the George Read II House on The Strand in New Castle, built by the son of one of Delaware’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. And just two years later, four early 19th-century houses were relocated to a lot next to the Society’s library as part of Wilmington’s Bicentennial celebration, creating a beautiful urban courtyard that we now know as Willingtown Square.
Eventually, the leadership of the historical society determined that they needed even more exhibition space than what was available in Old Town Hall, so they purchased a former Woolworth’s drugstore building right next door at 504 Market Street. In 1995 they opened the Delaware History Museum, housing a permanent exhibition of Delaware history, a temporary exhibition gallery, a museum store, a large lecture hall and several classrooms as well as a hands-on historic play area for children called Grandma's Attic. The building, which stretched all the way from Market Street to King Street, also afforded the Society extensive collections storage space.
In 2008 the Historical Society of Delaware rebranded itself as the Delaware Historical Society, dedicated to exploring, preserving, sharing, and promoting Delaware history, heritage, and culture to strengthen our community.
The historical society commemorated a milestone – 150 years of collecting, preserving and presenting Delaware history and furnishing educational services to the people of Delaware – in 2014. In addition to a full year of programs and exhibitions, the historical society launched The Sesquicentennial Campaign, a $6.8 million capital initiative to underwrite improvements to the organization’s downtown Wilmington campus.
The most striking addition is a two-story glass connector linking Old Town Hall to the Delaware History Museum and the new Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage. Fully accessible, Old Town Hall is used for rotating exhibits and education programs, as well as being available for private functions. Renovated spaces in the Delaware History Museum house the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, new exhibits on Delaware history, re-purposed classrooms and more galleries to engage visitors in experiencing the First State’s rich history and culture.