Our Purpose and Direction

By ROGER D. BRIDGES

 

Volume X, Number 2
Winter, 1992

Presidents fascinate the American people, a fascination demonstrated by the importance the public attaches to presidential libraries. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has left such a monument to his administration. The libraries and museums in these institutions contain documents and display exhibits that illustrate facets of the president and his era. The federal government maintains all but one of the libraries dedicated to these modern presidents.1 The modern presidential libraries replicate, to the greater or lesser degree, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. When it opened in 1916, the Hayes Memorial was the only such institution in the nation. It remains unique today as the oldest presidential library, the only one dedicated to a nineteenth century president, and the only presidential library supported solely by a combination of private and state funds.

While each presidential library emphasizes its particular President and his administration, a few libraries include material that appears to fall outside their sphere of interest. The John F. Kenney Library, for example, has the Ernest Hemingway Papers. Still, most of the Presidential Libraries have well-defined, easily-identifiable guidelines that direct, as well as limit, their activities.

Because the Hayes Presidential Center was in existence long before the federal institutions, and because it developed with no previous model, its collections tend to be more eclectic. Moreover, because it reflected the interests of its found, Webb C. Hayes, it exhibited his sense of what was of interest to the American public. Under his founding leadership, the museum collected and preserved a variety of artifacts for exhibition.

The core of the collection, however, remains the President’s material. The museum showcases items he acquired while in office. The Native American pottery, clothing, and artifacts that now grace display cases as gifts to the “Great White Father.” Other admirers sent an avalanche of trinkets, ribbons, one-of-a-kinds gifts, and memorabilia. Hayes himself collected books on a wide range of subjects. Richly bound and well-preserved, they remain as an important legacy to the presidential center bearing his name.

For most of the past seventy-give years, the library emphasized acquiring and preserving manuscript and other material relating to the Hayes family. In recent years, the Hayes Presidential Center began collecting the papers of Hayes’s political colleagues. This represents an important part of the Center’s effort to emphasize more broadly the Gilded Age, an era of dynamic political, social, and technological change.

In 1985 the Presidential Center Board of trustees formally acknowledged this position when it announced its intention to become an important repository of the Gilded Age. The emphasis on the period 1865-1917 is a logical extension of the additional collecting done by the President’s son, Webb C. Hayes. A businessman, soldier, and world traveler, he had the money and opportunity to indulge his interests in wide-ranging areas of history. As a result of his travels, and his friendship with leaders world-wide, he acquired artifacts from China’s Forbidden City, primitive weapons employed by Filipino guerrillas, pieces of the battleship Maine, and the fine furniture from Belgium. These exotic items, and many more, all found their way to Spiegel Grove in the consignment cases that must have arrived frequently while he was abroad.

From the time the Hayes Presidential Center opened in 1916, it also accepted collections from others outside the family. These range from glass plate negatives that document the early years of aviation in the United States to antique dolls from the early part of the nineteenth century, from Civil War diaries to artifacts from a nineteenth century “prison” ship that toured the United States in the 1930s.2

Other essays in this issue will deal in greater detail with specific artifacts and manuscripts found in the Hayes Center collections. It is important to recognize that, from its very inception, the Center catalogued and displayed a diverse collection of items. The central themes connecting this eclectic memorabilia are that each represented some aspect of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that most of the material has had some relationship to the Hayes family.

In recent years, the Center staff – librarians, museum curators, and others – aggressively began to implement the Trustees’ wish to become a center for Gilded Age study. With the encouragement of the Trustees, the Hayes Presidential Center established this Journal in 1976. More recently the Trustees encouraged the director of the Center to become the acting administrator for the Society for Historian of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE). The library staff, in removing inappropriate or duplicate books, created additional shelf space for more appropriate material.

Over the next seventy-five years and beyond, the staff of the Hayes Presidential Center intends to continue seeking manuscripts, artifacts, and printed materials that will enhance the Center’s Gilded Age focus. At the same time, as wished by its founder, the Center will maintain its focus on the President and his family. In this way, the Center continues the tradition of presidential libraries that the Hayes family initiated seventy-five years ago.

Notes


1 The Nixon Presidential Papers Projects if housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The museum, located in Yorba Linda, California, was constructed and is maintained by private funds.

2 The Success was a British bark launched in Moulmein, Burma, around 1840. Investors brought her to the United States in the 1930s. It toured a number of salt water ports before her owners brought her to the Great Lakes. Here they promoted the Success as an authentic prison ship used to transport British “criminals” to Australia. This claim is dubious, but the ship’s array of terrifying machines of torture attracted considerable attention. Many artifacts and manuscripts from the Success repose in the Center’s Frank E. Hamilton collection.