THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF SAFETY and THE SAFETY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA
Did you know there was a museum in the United States dedicated to safety? This article introduces it and summarizes its history. Eventually, it was not the only museum devoted to safety and health in the United States.
The Organization and Its Facilities
In 1907 several organizations and companies saw a need to educate employers, workers and the public about safety and to promote its importance. It was the age of the industrial revolution and many immigrants who spoke different languages. Many workers were new to machines and the changes from horse-drawn vehicles to street cars and other powered vehicles. The means for communicating dangers and hazards were limited and an array of exhibits provided a way to illustrate safety principles and practices and to introduce effective safety appliances. These organizations and companies established The American Museum of Safety in New York City in 1907. Initially, it occupied space in the American Museum of Natural History where it provided the “first safety display ever made in the United States.” It became officially incorporated in New York in 1910. It was the first organization devoted to promoting public sentiment for industrial safety and general safety and health. Within a few years, other organizations formed that were all focused on “saving human beings from needless disaster and disease.” Soon it occupied space in the Engineering Societies’ Building at 29 West 39th Street.
The founding groups organized the American Museum of Safety to prevent accidents, to eliminate or lessen occupational diseases, and to promote industrial welfare through health, efficiency and cooperation.
The idea mainly grew out of Europe. By 1915 there were 26 safety museums in the world offering education to people about safety at work and for the public in general. There were museums of safety in Munich, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Zurich, Milan, Vienna and Amsterdam. These museums created efforts “to keep workers of the nations fit and whole through accident prevention and health promotion,” Given the time just prior to the United States entry into WWI, Dr. William H. Tolman, Director of the American Museum of Safety, stated: “Germany realized the importance of keeping her industrial army un-maimed and healthy, and that is why she has almost eliminated accidents in her industries. Preparedness in America should begin in our industries, keeping our workers – the men who when the pinch comes will have to defend our country – fit and whole and sound. Half a million is a conservative estimate of the workers maimed and injured in American industries every year.”
Early in its history, there were a few large contributors providing funds for the museum’s operations, including:
- Mrs. E. H. Harriman
- U.S. Steel Corporation
- Consolidated Gas Co. of N.Y.
- Phelps, Dodge & Co.
- Edison Electric Illinois Co of Brooklyn
- National Lead Co.
Over time, the list of major contributors increased.
There were several classes of individual and organizational membership, each with differing fees and benefits:
In 1913, the American Museum of Safety sponsored the “First International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation” in New York City.
By 1916 the museum housed 600 exhibits in its space at 14-18 West Twenty Fourth Street in Manhattan. The space included the basement, ground floor and mezzanine of that building. By then the American Museum of Safety had a library of 3,000 books, 5,000 photographs, and several thousand lantern slides.
In 1916 the American Museum of Safety published a list of about 250 safety organizations grouped by:
- Electric Railways, Light and Power Companies (73)
- Iron and Steel (17)
- Steam Railways (55)
- General Industry and Societies (107)
Most were employer and company based. A few were employee based. A few were local associations.
People today will recognize many industry, railroad and steel companies that were in the fulllist. One society many still recognize is the National Safety Council, formed in 1913. An organization with an interesting name was the “Safety First” Society of New York City that did a lot to promote a widely used theme of that era and a slogan that remains in use today.
On December 31, 1918, after about 12 years of operation, the name changed to the Safety Institute of America. The name change reflected a change in the methods the organization used. It had shifted from the early emphasis on conveying safety matters through exhibits to one of offering a wide range of educational programs and services. Its activities had begun to include publicity for new methods, research, information services, plant inspections, lecture courses, technical advise and assistance to municipal, state and federal departments. The primary publication, Safety, remained. The Safety Institute of America continued in operation until about 1970. At that time, the last known issue of Safety (Volume 57) was published.
After World War I, the City of New York leased the Arsenal Building in Central Park to the Safety Institute of America for purpose of maintaining its exhibition of safety appliances and making the Arsenal a center for safety education. The Arsenal, originally built by the State of New York in 1848, was near the 64th Street entrance to Central Park. The Arsenal was a military facility during WWI. The Museum had to modify the facility in order to make good use of the structure.
Activities of the Museum
The American Museum of Safety had numerous activities. An early activity was publication of its bulletin: Safety. This monthly publication began in 1913. Each issue covered a wide variety of subjects for readers. It often included presentations on safety by various highly recognized people. It sometimes listed detailed safety improvements by individual companies. It offered information on activities that promoted safety, recent books, new standards by states, statistics on accidents and injuries and many other items of interest to those seeking to advance safety at work and for the public. The Bulletin listed and promoted upcoming safety conferences and exhibitions and often provided copies of presentations and key information from them.
An early activity was an annual banquet in New York City to recognize various companies and organizations for their improved safety performance and achievements. Award winners received medals of recognition donated by various individuals or companies. The 1916 medals included:
- E. H. Harriman Medal
- Anthony N. Brady Memorial Medal
- Scientific American Gold Medal
- Travelers Insurance Company Gold Medal
- Louis Livingston Seaman Gold Medal
The Museum’s library offered collections of photographs, clippings from technical journals, lantern slides and books. The Museum had a periodical room containing safety bulletins and other safety publications.
The Museum offered lectures on accident prevention at it’s facility and at meetings of other groups. Some lectures covered workmen’s compensation law, hygiene, street hazards, fire prevention in the home. Audiences included workers, youth, and church groups. The Museum’s Director often spoke at conferences and events across the country.
The exhibits continued to grow. The exhibits and their organization were adjusted periodically. By 1916 the exhibits were organized into groups:
- Anti-slip Material
- Boiler Safety Appliances
- Dustry Trades
- Fire Prevention
- First Aid
- Grinding Wheels
- Iron and Steel
- Machine Shops
- Marine Safety
- Mine Safety
- Protective Clothing
- Railroad Safety
- Resuscitating Devices
- Shop Sanitation
- Miscellaneous Devices
The Museum ran a series of moving pictures on safety, health and related industrial subjects. Typically, the Museum offered them at noon so people could view them during the lunch hour. Most of the moving pictures were produced by large companies and associations.
The Museum developed inspection services primarily for work places in and surrounding New York City. They addressed compliance with labor laws and best practices and focused on eliminating dangerous processes and conditions and unsanitary conditions. Sanitation dealt with suitable washroom, lavatory, shower, clothing change facilities, water supply and related facilities. In addition, sanitation addressed exposures to dust, fumes, steam and excessive heat. Inspectors provided confidential, written reports with findings and recommendations.
The American Museum of Safety also collaborated with other organizations engaged in the early safety movement. For example, the Museum worked with the National Safety Council on several projects. One was to develop and recommend a course of study in industrial accident prevention to be included in the curricula of technical schools in the United States.
By 1916, the idea of a museum to educate people on worker and public safety began to spread across the United States. By then California, Massachusetts and Kansas had established state museums of safety. They typically operated under the state labor department or an industrial accident commission.
In 1919 the Safety Institute of America developed a series of lectures intended to train inspectors, representatives of state and municipal departments involved in safety, engineers, and other employees of companies. The goal was to help them improve their overall knowledge of matters essential to protecting workers. The course included the following lectures:
- The Body Which Gets Hurt
- The Injured Body and Its Treatment
- Protective Clothing for Men
- Suitable Work Garments for Women in Industry
- Safe Heads and Good Eyes
- Guarding Machinery
- Arrangement of Machinery and Working Places
- Heating and Ventilation
- Nature’s Forces For and Against Workmen
- Safety Education and Shop Organization
Students received a copy of the lectures, which included an extensive bibliography of resource materials for each lecture. In June 1919, the Safety Institute of American had a class of 200 men and women who had completed the course. Included were 131 inspectors.
The American Museum of Safety and its subsequent organization, the Safety Institute of America, played an important role in advancing the early safety movement in the United States. When it began, there were few state and federal agencies in place to help advance safety and health at work and for the public. As private associations, societies, labor organizations, and government agencies came into existence, its role diminished. However, it was an important part of safety and health history that helped get the safety and health movement underway, created many educational tools and resources that were models for others, and fostered communication among emerging safety and health efforts of industry, government, labor and private sectors. Little information remains about the history of the American Museum of Safety, except that recorded in its publication: Safety, the Bulletin of the American Museum of Safety.
- Safety, Bulletin of American Museum of Safety, 1912-1918. (See Hathitrust)
- William H. Tolman, “The American Museum of Safety Devices and Industrial Hygiene, Scientific American, Vol 96, No. 21, page 427, May 25, 1907.
- Lisa Rivera, MCHY Blog: The Great Bygone Museum Tour, December 3, 2013, https://blog.mcny.org/2013/12/03/the-great-bygone-museum-tour/
- Ross Wilson, “The Museum of Safety: Responsibility, Awareness and Modernity in New York, 1908-1923,” Journal of American Studies, Volume 51, Issue 3, August 2017, pp. 915-938.
The images below were obtained “From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.”