In October 1784 the dyspeptic painter Robert Edge Pine (1730–1788) opened a gallery in Philadelphia where for twenty-five cents admission, his great allegorical canvas, América, along with depictions of scenes from Shakespeare, could be seen. Recently arrived from England, Pine intended eventually to expand his gallery to include portraits of political and military heroes of the new United States and historical paintings of "the most illustrious scenes of the late Revolution." His efforts met with a warm reception. With the patronage of Samuel Vaughan, he was soon awarded rent-free rooms in the State House, a tacit acknowledgment of the value of his works to the nation.
Pine's short-lived gallery was among the first in a burgeoning number of museums and historical societies that sprang up during the first fifty years of the Republic, a period in which Americans sought to construct and reconstruct memories of their new nation. Motivated by commercial gain, self-promotion, nationalism, and a desire to promote civic virtue and a stable social order, Americans converged on the idea of collecting, preserving, and displaying their past and present for public consumption.
During the colonial era, "cabinets" of natural curiosities and "philosophical apparatus" were largely private affairs, though some could be found at colleges or were associated with scholarly organizations. None of these cabinets, however, adopted the broad educational aims or nationalist aspirations of the museums that came in the wake of the Revolution. The quintessential museum of the early national period, and one of the earliest museums in America, was founded in 1786 by the artist, scientist, and Revolutionary veteran Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Like Pine before him, Peale established his Philadelphia Museum as a commercial enterprise featuring portraits of Revolutionary heroes, designed not only to commemorate the events of the war, but to propagate the patriotism and values of that generation.
An ardent republican, Peale aimed to "instruct and amuse" all classes of society, high and low, using his exhibits to limn a narrative of the new nation as uniquely virtuous, powerful, and expansive. By 1796, after he had moved his museum into rented spaces on the top floor of Philosophical Hall (headquarters of the American Philosophical Society), Peale's ambitions had expanded to include all the natural world, the contemplation of which he believed, as did many of his contemporaries, would exert a moral influence over young minds. Although the museum included objects collected from around the world (some obtained through Peale's peers in the American Philosophical Society), his emphasis lay on the distinctive productions of the continent that he believed reflected the American character. In a menagerie behind Philosophical Hall, he kept grizzly cubs and other American beasts, and inside he arranged wildlife, plants, and Indian artifacts in an exhibition based upon the Great Chain of Being, with white humanity at the head.
The museum added other distinctly American displays, including specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their transcontinental expedition (1803–1806) paired with a life-size wax model of Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) himself, decked out in buckskin and fringe. The centerpiece at Peale's museum, however, requiring a separate twenty-five-cent ticket, was the mounted skeleton of a mastodon unearthed in New York state in 1801, an animal that was a natural hymn for the new nation. Prior to the American Revolution the French naturalist, George Louis LeClerc, comte de Buffon (1707–1788), had wounded the pride of American naturalists by theorizing that the North American environment was so impoverished that it could support only a weak and degenerate fauna. The mastodon, called the Mammoth, was the American response, proof positive of native vigor.
High toned and low, museums proliferated in the wake of Peale's, with a relatively small group of entrepreneurs spreading them throughout the states. The Peale family, for example, established a second branch in Baltimore in 1813, while the industrious wax modeler Daniel Bowen followed the creation of his museum in New York (1789) by opening another in Philadelphia (1792–1794) and then the Columbian Museum in Boston (1795–1803). While many were regional in focus, the nationalist elements that distinguished Peale's were common. Even Nathan Dunn's Chinese Museum in Philadelphia had implications for the nation, displaying the material goods reaped from America's first commercial forays into Asia. After the turn of the nineteenth century, museums also flourished as adjuncts of a growing number of lyceums and scientific societies and, building from rudimentary teaching collections and the private cabinets of faculty members, a few collegiate collections became noteworthy. The faculty at Harvard, Bowdoin, Dickinson, and Yale built important mineralogical collections, for example, while Princeton pursued a different course, purchasing a private collection in 1805 to form the core of its new museum of natural history.
Paralleling the proliferation of museums was an equal proliferation of historical societies, which merged some of the functions of museums, learned societies, and public archives. One of the key factors fostering the growth of these societies was the wave of nostalgia, peaking in the years around the War of 1812, for the supposed unity and virtue of the Revolutionary generation and the desire, while still possible, to capture the memory of the founding generation. Atypical in many regards, the American Antiquarian Society (1812) was the offspring of Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831), the printer and Revolutionary veteran, who was convinced of the central position of the United States in the providential history of the world and wanted to preserve the written record of the Revolutionary generation and make it available to future Americans.
The earliest historical society in the United States, the Massachusetts Historical Society, was founded in 1791 to collect "things which will illustrate the history of our country." "Things" initially signaled a hodgepodge of artifacts and curios, but within a decade, the society began increasingly to focus on the written record. Following the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), the merchant John Pintard (who had helped found the American Museum in 1790) in 1804 led a group of ten in organizing the New-York Historical Society. It had a mission similar to the MHS: to "collect and preserve whatever may relate to the natural, civil, or ecclesiastical History of the United States in general." These words were echoed by the seven young Philadelphians who established the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1824, which made a special effort to document Indian cultures. After an array of federal institutions began to preserve documents of national importance during the early nineteenth century, historical societies like those in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania adopted a more strictly regional focus.