SCI is rolling out a new platform to house its digital archives collection. Since 2010, SCI’s Archives team has worked to digitize more than 12,500 items from its extensive archives, providing digital access to the Institute’s collection of historic records and artifacts that document the history of the Port of New York and New Jersey. The Digital Archives contain photographs, scrapbooks, annual reports, back issues of SCI’s newsletter The Lookout, and many other ephemeral artifacts from the Institute’s history. An online searchable database houses information about these historic items with links to scanned images.
Through historical photographs, we see SCI’s work evolve from caring for the body, mind, and soul of the sailor from the grand premises at 25 South Street, to serving a very different, more transient population of seafarers who pass through the doors of the International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark for much shorter periods of time. SCI’s mission has remained constant, but the outworking of it has necessarily changed with the times. How do the photos help us understand this? What will the archives of SCI’s current work look like to people reviewing them 50 years from now?
As maritime commerce’s influence on history emerges from this collection, some famous names appear in SCI’s storied past. Former president Franklin D. Roosevelt joined SCI’s Board in 1908 and served in different capacities until his death in April of 1945. Names like Astor, Vanderbilt, and Morgan swayed the direction of the Institute and solidified its presence on the New York City landscape.
The archives also contain several scrapbooks of photographs documenting voyages that provide windows into the lives of sailors during the first half of the 20th century. Through these scrapbooks, we see shifts in technology: gaff rigs giving way to bermuda sails, the last vestiges of sail giving way to steam, and even a few suggestions of diesel appearing in the most recent images. Just as notable in these scrapbooks are keepsake photos of families ashore and candid shots of close colleagues aboard vessel.
From open-air tent services on downtown piers in the 1860s, to housing survivors from torpedoed vessels during World War II, SCI’s archival records capture a remarkable history. “The archives tell the story of real people and an extraordinary past,” says SCI Senior Archivist Johnathan Thayer. “Within the collection are the voices of the waterfront … from merchant seamen to chaplains to boardinghouse keepers. By preserving and publishing these records we are ensuring that these voices can be heard again.”