The Classes vs. the Masses

By Jerri Sherman

It took New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), founded in 1870, a remarkable twenty-one years to convince its board of trustees to open the museum to the public on Sunday. In the post-Civil War years, during what was called the Gilded Age, America’s greatest city experienced momentous social, cultural, and economic change, which led to an increasingly unrestrained environment. New ideas from many sources jeopardized traditional values, and the business and political frenzy acted as a magnet for masses of immigrants who came to America and settled in New York, hoping for a new and better life. By the 1880s, the city was both reeling from the onslaught of violent labor unrest and financial depression and struggling to accommodate a million people, fully two-thirds of whom lived in 32,000 overcrowded tenement buildings. Native-born New Yorkers felt their way of life threatened by the influx of these newcomers and their “foreign” ways. With a worsening urban crisis, it became clear that many aspects of social behavior required change.


The development of rival doctrines also brought serious challenges to Christian religious conservatism. Sabbatarianism, one of Protestantism’s traditional moral crusades, found that it had lost touch with the labor movement, whose members chose in increasing numbers to avoid church attendance. The idea of a day exclusively for religious dedication was supplanted by the need for a secular day of rest. Thus the old boundary of the Sunday Sabbath needed to be broken.

The Sunday Taboo

Against this backdrop, the idea for the Sunday opening of the Met began with only a few scattered voices suggesting it. As early as 1873, the New York Tribune stated its “regret” that the exhibitions could not be opened on Sundays; two years later, it declared that the museum should be opened to workers on Sunday and should charge fees to those who did not work during the week and could afford to pay. In 1879, public attention focused on the Met’s activities and policies with the opening of its permanent building, provided by the city, in Central Park. “Why were the art museums in Boston and Philadelphia open on Sunday and not the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York?” inquired both the Evening Post and the Herald. In its Sunday issue, published two days before the formal opening of the new building on March 30, 1880, the Tribune made its opinion clear:

From the very beginning the museum has been an exclusive social toy, not a great instrument of popular education, and all its failure to secure a more generous endowment from the state, all the popular lukewarmness, and the restless demonstrations of opposition, have sprung from the conviction that this radical fault existed.

By the mid-1880s, the idea of a Sunday opening became a rallying point for most city and state officials, political groups, civic and reform-minded citizens, labor unions, prominent clergymen, and most of the New York press. Nevertheless, the museum’s founding board of trustees, and all successive museum boards, fought tenaciously against all efforts to bring it about—since the group of prominent, conservative, Protestant men who had founded the Met considered breaking the Sunday Sabbath a sin against God.

A Change in Journalism

During the Civil War, a hunger for information had spurred the creation of Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Although soundly condemned by the Sabbatarians, these Sunday editions continued to thrive. By 1883, when Joseph Pulitzer bought the World, a money-losing daily, from the financier Jay Gould, what came to be called “New Journalism” began to flourish. This new approach, as promulgated by the World, targeted as its readers the newly arrived immigrants. To court them, the World employed new writers, ran spirited “human interest” news with an emphasis on gossip, scandal, and sensation, and developed a formula that became hugely popular: it would identify a social ill that resonated with its readership, and then create a “crusade” to correct it. once the World identified such a cause—and the Sunday opening of the Met became such a “crusade”—it never let up until the matter reached a resolution.

Within four months, the World’s circulation of 20,000 doubled. Pulitzer’s success caused other newspapers to alter their policies on circulation, price, news, and editorials in order to survive. Ultimately the World became the leading voice for liberal causes in America and influenced the character of the entire daily press.

By 1885, with Sunday afternoon concerts in Central Park successfully established and attended by thousands, the battle to force the Met to open on Sunday became a broad movement. When it became known in 1886 that for years friends of the director and the trustees had visited the museum on Sunday by presenting a special pass to an attendant guarding a side door, the uproar grew.

The Marquand Gallery, six years after the Met opened its doors on Sundays.

The Marquand Gallery, six years after the Met opened its doors on Sundays.

On May 19, 1891, the issue was finally addressed during a three-hour meeting of the Met’s board. At this boisterous gathering, described as a “series of cloudbursts,” a sharply divided board passed the following resolution: “Resolved, that…the museum be opened free to the public every Sunday from 1 P.M. till half an hour before sunset.” A gentleman representing the World attended the meeting with a check in hand to help offset the additional costs of opening on the extra day. Later the World’s headline proclaimed, “THE PEOPLE TRIUMPH.” The New York Times trumpeted, “VICTORY IS WON AT LAST.”

“A Working-Class Crowd”

The influence of the press in bringing about change to New York’s social structure was obvious. Politicians, reformers, unions, and religious leaders, who for years had acted separately, combined their efforts and used the platform the press offered to achieve their goal of bringing culture to New York’s working class on the one day they could enjoy it. Six-day-a-week work obligations left vast numbers of New Yorkers and their families in the majority Christian culture with only Sunday for leisure time, and they now responded enthusiastically to entering this remarkable institution of culture and education.

On Sunday, May 31, 1891, at 1 p.m. “on the dot,” the Met’s doors opened freely to the public. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon. By day’s end, 12,000 to 15,000 visitors had taken advantage of the opportunity to view the museum’s treasures, many visiting a museum for the first time.

This event was considered so significant that reports of it appeared in the domestic press in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—and in la Crosse, Wisconsin, Keokuk, Iowa, and Seneca Falls, New York—and as far away as Italy. The New York newspapers reported that well-dressed young men and women arrived first, “the girls arrayed in stunning spring costumes and hats that looked like miniature flower gardens. Later a sprinkling of workingmen arrived looking a little uncomfortable in their Sunday best and shortly joined by their wives and families, they soon composed the majority of the afternoon crowd, definitely a working class crowd.” Addressing reporters as he left the museum, the Met’s director, General di Cesnola, expressed “amazement” at the intelligence of his Sunday visitors, having overheard some of their conversations as they moved around the galleries. However, the decidedly proper appearance of the crowd, he said, left him convinced that the poorer classes—the very people the newspapers had sought to reach in their advocacy of a Sunday opening—had not been sufficiently interested to come. But the curators disagreed with him, and the next day several editorials confirmed their opinions. One reporter observed that “those who had expected Essex Street Polish Jews and Thirty-Ninth Street and eleventh Avenue hod carriers, in ragged clothing and dilapidated hats, were agreeably disappointed,” and that those expectant individuals were surprised that “the wage earners of New York and all the workers in the lesser world, are able to wear decent clothes, put ribbons on their wives and comfort themselves with good taste and intelligence.”

More than a century later, in 2007 the Met’s Visitor’s Service Department reported an average Sunday attendance of between 16,000 and 18,000, with a peak of 40,000 visitors on one Sunday during the Christmas holidays. Whatever may be said about the individual motives of the Met’s founders, it is clear that they did the right thing.

Jerri Sherman is a former women’s clothing label owner, who served three years on the Small Business Advisory Board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. She is writing a book on the subject of this essay.