In December of 1868, prominent members of the local community came together to form the Old Residents’ Historical Association. Electing Doctor John Green as its first president, the Association was created to preserve the history of Lowell and the surrounding towns through maintaining an archives and offering lectures. Originally, the Old Residents’ Association was very select in admitting members as the by-laws limited eligibility to those males who were residents of the city’s incorporation in 1836, had continuously lived in Lowell since that time and were at least 45 years of age.
By 1897, the organization had moved out of its location at the Board of Trade in the Central Block eventually settling into Memorial Hall above the City Library. Within a few years though, the Association’s numbers were dwindling and the members decided to form a new group with more open and accessible membership requirements.
In May of 1902, the Lowell Historical Society was established as the corporate successor to the Old Residents’ Association, electing Solon Stevens as its president and welcoming both men and women. During Stevens’ presidency, the Society promoted local history and genealogy and published bound copies of the papers presented at its meetings, known as the Contributions of the Old Residents. A disastrous fire at Memorial Hall in March of 1915 nearly destroyed the Society’s collection, but because of a quick response by firemen the impact was limited to smoke and water damage. After Stevens’ death in 1918, Judge Samuel Hadley took over as president, but his advanced age led him to retire the following year. Presidents Alfred Sawyer (1919 – 1936) and Frederick Coburn (1936 – 1953) continued to build up the organization whose membership was still primarily comprised of folks of English ancestry.
The deaths of Coburn and Vice President Warren Fox in the space of a few weeks during the 1950’s led to major changes in the operation of the Society. Presidents’ terms were changed from lifelong posts to two and four year terms. Society Presidents became more representative of the community including Charles Sampas (1956 – 1958) of the Greek community, Robert Goldman (1958 – 1962) and Allen Gerson (1969 – 1972) from the Jewish community and Arthur Eno, Jr. (1972 – 1974) from the French community. Mary Blewett (1976 – 1978), professor in history, was the first woman to be elected president of the Society.
During the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, the Lowell Historical Society published Cotton was King, the first general history of Lowell put out in over fifty years. Realizing the importance of publications, the Society continued to produce more books including Fixed in Time (1983), Lowell Views (1985), The Continuing Revolution (1991), Mourning Glory (1992), Communidade (1994) and Lowell Monuments (1997). The Society also moved into new ground, producing videos of The 1936 Flood (1995) and Mourning Glory (1997).
By 1981, expansion of the City Library necessitated the Society’s move out of Memorial Hall and into the Lowell Art Association’s Whistler House. This arrangement lasted until 1989 when the organization moved to the rectory of Saint Anne’s Church. Two years later the Society, with the cooperation of the Lowell National Historical Park, moved to a location at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. In 2019, the Society moved its artifacts collection to a nearby storage location. The Society also maintains much of its paper and photographic archives at the University of Massachusetts Center for Lowell History in the nearby Mogan Cultural Center. The organization’s collection has grown considerably over the years and the 20th Century Acquisitions Initiative, begun in the Fall of 1993, has brought in many important artifacts of Lowell’s recent history.
On May 28, 2002, the Lowell Historical Society celebrated a century of preserving and perpetuating the city’s historic legacies.