Birth of New York’s Oldest Museum

November 20 1804 was a defining day in NYC. This is the day a man named John Pintard founded New York’s first museum: the New-York Historical Society. The organization is a world-class institution. The exhibitions, public programs and research all explore the rich history of New York and the nation.

NY Historical Society in the Upper West Side

Its founder John Pintard was an American merchant and philanthropist. Princeton educated and international trader. He also began the efforts which became the present public school system in New York.

John Pintard

Amidst the works displayed at the NY Historical Society, one of particular interest is a painting of a man named Edward Hyde. He was the Governor of New York and New Jersey between 1701 and 1708. He is dressed in women’s clothing:

William Hyde aka Lord Cornbury

Lord Cornbury, as hyde was also known, is reported to have opened the 1702 New York Assembly clad in a hooped gown and an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan, imitative of the style of Queen Anne. When his choice of clothing was questioned, he replied, “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (The Queen), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” It is also said that in August 1707, when his wife Lady Cornbury died, His High Mightiness (as he preferred to be called) attended the funeral dressed as a woman.

All of theses associations to Lord Cornbury could just be speculation. Recent research raises doubts. It may be that Lord Cornbury’s enemies started the rumor that he was the subject of the painting, and it was spread by satirists who wanted to make fun of him. The painting might actually be Queen Anne herself, or some other unidentified member of the English aristocracy. What we do know is that sometimes what we think of as history can change, depending on who’s telling the story. This painting represents how multi-layered NYC history can be.

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Updated for November 2019

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