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Robert McBurney New York YMCA-related papers

Identifier: Y.GNY.51


The Robert McBurney collection consists of letters and other personal files of Robert McBurney, who led the New York City YMCA for 36 years. Most of the correspondence involves requests for funds, although there are also membership applications, letters of excuse and letters of introduction. Also included is correspondence of later secretaries Henry Dickson, Burt Farnsworth and Henry Orne as well as prominent YMCA members including Mrs. Cleveland Dodge, Cleveland Dodge, Burt B. Farnsworth, Alfred E. Marling, Frederick A. Marquand, Cyrus McCormick, Dwight L. Moody, Emma Moody, William Fellowes Morgan, John R. Mott, Henry Orne, George Foster Peabody, Robert Pinkerton, George H. Putnam, James Stokes, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Cornelius Vanderbilt files focus on the Vanderbilt gift to the New York YMCA.


  • Creation: 1889-1920s.


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


Robert Ross McBurney was born in northern Ireland in 1837, immigrating to the United States in 1854. On arriving in New York City he rented a room at the YMCA and became an active member while working in a hat shop. He was appointed as librarian in 1862, overseeing the library and recruiting new members, seemingly focusing on those with the resources to help support and advance the organization. He briefly left in 1864 to try his hand at business in Philadelphia, but realized that his calling was not in commerce and sought to return to New York. He had corresponded with the president of the New York YMCA, William E. Dodge, Jr., after leaving the city, and had reported his dissatisfaction with the Philadelphia position. The job in New York was still available, and he was gladly recalled to be director and corresponding secretary of what was then called the YMCA of the City of New York.

McBurney oversaw the rapid growth of the organization in the years following the Civil War. He was aslo reponsible for incorporating an emphasis on the body in addition to the mind and spirit, giving the YMCA a focus that it retains today. He began an ambitious building program after the Civil War, first presiding over not just the construction but the funding of an impressive building, the first purpose-built YMCA in the United States. The building incorporated features still found in YMCA buildings around the world: a gymnasium, a swimming pool, game rooms, social parlors, classroom, a bowling alley and an auditorium. Debt on the building was financed by leasing offices and studio spaces on the ground floor.

Not content with focusing on New York alone, he persuaded the national YMCA to locate its headquarters in the city. He also became a full member of the International Committee in the 1860s. He is known for developing the metropolitan concept of the YMCA that is in use in large cities throughout the United States -- one organization with branches, rather than separate YMCA operations scattered throughout an urban area.

When McBurney died in 1898, he left a strong and growing organization with 15 branches, a physical plant worth $2 million, 149 full-time employees and an annual program attendance of two million young men. As a result of McBurney's efforts, the New York YMCA had become the most influential Y in America.


2 Cubic Feet (2 boxes)


Letters to and from Robert McBurney during the later years of his service as secretary to the YMCA in New York City. Also included is correspondence from subsequent secretaries such as Henry Dickson, Burt Farnsworth, and Henry Orne.

Physical Location

See Detailed Description section for box listing.


The following related collections are separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives:

Robert McBurney papers in the YMCA of the USA collection that include additional correspondence with Robert McBurney.

YMCA of the City of New York records in the YMCA of Greater New York collection that include additional correspondence with Robert McBurney.

Processing Information:

Processed by: Louise Merriam, November 2015.

Catalog Record ID number: 9974070709601701

An Inventory of His Papers in the YMCA of Greater New York Collection
Finding aid prepared by Louise Merriam.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area