Sign for Sesquicentennial exhibition, June 1954 (N-YHS Pictorial Archive)
Visitors to the New-York Historical Society (as well as many copy editors and printers throughout the ages) have often wondered why the title of our institution includes a hyphen between the “New” and “York”. The answer is simple; when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804, New York was generally written as “New-York.” This practice was adhered to in books and newspaper titles and often applied to the spelling of other states such as New-Hampshire and New-Jersey. The general use of the hyphen in such words began to subside in the mid 1800’s, but some publications and legal documents continued to use it officially. For instance, The New York Times was one of the last holdouts and used the hyphen in its masthead until the 1890’s. See the N-YHS trivia book When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? for further details.
Broadside, 1774 (SY 1774-49)
The fact that the hyphen in the Society’s name was never officially dropped generally went unnoticed. However, in January of 1945 the New York World-Telegram reported that certain city council members became upset when one of them noticed the hyphen in the Society’s name on a subway advertisement for the institution. The paper stated that Chief Magistrate Henry H. Curran told President of City Council Newbold Morris “This thing -this hyphen- is like a gremlin which sneaks around in the dark…You should call a special meeting of City Council immediately and have a surgical operation on it! We won’t be hyphenated by anyone!” The Council soon attempted to pass a law barring the use of the hyphen in New York.
Central Park West entrance showing the hyphen “chiseled in stone” , ca. 1985
Despite these harsh words, curators and librarians at the Society stood by the hyphen and bravely confirmed that the hyphen was in the Society’s name since it was founded. Librarian Dorothy Barck declared that she could not locate any evidence that the official hyphen in “New-York” was ever officially deleted by the city or state. Curator Donald A. Shelley remarked that we couldn’t even change our name if we wanted to because, “It’s chiseled in stone on the front of our building.”
All this press over something so silly, especially during World War II, naturally called for mockery. In March of 1945, a group of musicians and composers wrote “The Hyphen-Song” to be sung at a city council meeting. The words to this love song about hyphens written by Leonard Whitcup included:
Take a boy like me, dear
Take the girl I’m dreaming of-
Add a hyphen, what’ve you got?
You got-UM-M- you’ve got love!
Me without you-you without me
It’s a sad affair-
But take a tip from the hyphen-
And baby we’ll get somewhere
It appears that no law was ever passed outlawing the infamous hyphen, and the Society continues to use it in its official name. Today the New-York Historical Society is proud of the hyphen in its name. The hyphen is still prominently displayed outside the building in stone and the Society’s summer softball team name is called “the Hyphens.”
Current entrance to the Society on Richard Gilder Way (77th Street) that proudly displays the hyphen.