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Wagner Free Institute of Science Superintendent's and Director's reports


Held at: Wagner Free Institute of Science [Contact Us]1700 W. Montgomery Ave., Philadelphia, PA, 19121

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Incorporated by William Wagner (1796-1885) in 1855, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is a natural history museum and educational institution in Philadelphia that is dedicated to providing free public education in the sciences. Indeed, “its free public education courses on science … are the oldest program devoted to free adult education in the United States.” (The First 150 Years, page 1).

Following the death of William Wagner, the Board of Directors of the Wagner Free Institute of Science shaped and oversaw the daily running of the Institute’s educational, library and museum activities. This changed in the early 1900s when a Superintendent (title later changed to Director) was hired to oversee the daily running of the Institute. The Superintendent/Director reported to the Board of Trustees and that body made decisions about the Institute’s financial expenditures, policies and programs. Samuel Wagner served as President of the Board of Trustees of the Wagner Free Institute from 1885 to 1921 and as President Emeritus from 1921 to 1937. Other administrators of the Wagner include: Thomas Lynch Montgomery, Actuary and Librarian from 1886 to 1903; John Rothermel, Superintendent from 1903 to 1913 and Director from 1914 to 1924; Carl Boyer, Curator from 1924 to 1928 and Director from 1928 to 1945; Robert Chambers, Director from 1945 to 1980; John Graham, Director, 1980 to 1988; Roger Montgomery, Director from 1988 to 1992; and Susan Glassman, Director from 1993. These directors oversaw “a leading force in public education in Philadelphia,” (The First 150 Years, page 2) originally conceived, organized and run by William Wagner.

William Wagner, “a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, gentleman scientist, and lifelong collector of natural history specimens,” (The First 150 Years, p. 1) was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the Philadelphia Academy, which later became the University of Pennsylvania, in 1808. He started his career in an apprenticeship in the counting house of Stephen Girard, a Philadelphia financier. As time passed, Wagner’s duties progressed until he was “assigned the position of supercargo and sent overseas to look after Girard’s shipping interests,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 2). He continued working for Girard for seven years, learning from him about both business and philanthropy. Wagner then formed two businesses: a mercantile partnership with Captain Snowden creating his business Snowden & Wagner which existed from 1819 to 1825; and the Lennoxville Steam Saw Mill which existed from 1925 to 1828. By 1940, Wagner “retired from his commercial pursuits,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 2).

Until this time, Wagner’s travels provided him with opportunities to collect specimens and in 1841 and 1842, he travelled to Europe with his wife. During this trip, Wagner continued to collect specimens and visited “principal scientific institutes of the Continent,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 2). Upon his return to Philadelphia, the size of his specimen collection necessitated the building of a wing which he called “The Cabinet” at his home, Elm Grove. In 1847, “believing strongly that education in the sciences should be available to everyone, Wagner began offering free lectures on science at his home,” (The First 150 Years, page 1) using his extensive collection of natural history specimens. By 1855, his home no longer accommodated the number of people interested in his lectures, and he moved the lectures to the Municipal Hall at 13th and Spring Garden Streets and formally established the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Its “program [was] codified in a charter drafted by Wagner, himself,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 2) on May 21, 1855. The existing building which houses the Wagner Free Institute of Science was opened in 1865 and includes an exhibit gallery, classrooms, a library and a lecture hall.

Although, he served as President of the Wagner Free Institute of Science until his death in 1885, he prepared for the future of his Institute and, in 1864, decided to leave his “estate to the charge of a Board of Trustees who would continue to run the institution according to [Wagner’s] original goals,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, pages 3-4). After his death, the Board of Directors appointed Joseph Leidy as director of the academic programs of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Leidy was “a biologist of international reputation,” (The First 150 Years, page 2) and was serving as Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Leidy, who served until his death in 1891, “expanded the programs at the Institute to include a more significant and extensive course of scholarly research,” obtained “some of the most noted scientists and explorers of the age, including Angelo Heilprin, Joseph Willcox and Henry Leffmann for his faculty,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 5), founded, with member of the Board Sydney Skidmore, the Society for the Extension of University Teaching on November 5, 1890, and reorganized the Wagner Free Institute of Science’s Natural History Museum into a systematic display. The Museum's arrangement remains virtually unaltered to this day. In 1892, Samuel Wagner, along with several other Philadelphians “appl[ied] for a charter to form the Free Library of Philadelphia,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 6) and The Wagner Free Institute became Branch No. 1 of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In 1901, a new wing was built that housed the Free Library branch until the Columbia Avenue branch opened in 1962.

According to the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is “a nationally significant monument documenting the development of science, education and museums,” (NRHP Registration, Section 8, page 2).


“The First 150 Years: A Brief History,” author unknown, circa 2008.

National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1989.

This collection consists of the superintendent’s and director’s reports from 1903 to 1988. This full-run of reports focuses mainly on financial matters such as renovation needs and the related estimates and bids from contractors, real estate and property holdings, pending lawsuits, the estate of William Wagner, insurance matters, and the financial health of the institution. The reports also pay tribute to members of the staff and community who have recently died, note attendance figures, announce or discuss programs and events at the Institute, and describe the professional activities of the director. During early years, reports were submitted monthly, excluding summer months. During later years, the reports were submitted quarterly. This collection contains the reports of John G. Rothermel who served as superintendent and director from 1903 to 1924, Carl Boyer who served as curator and director from 1924 to 1946, Robert Chambers who served as director from 1946 to 1980, and John C. Graham who served as director from 1980 to 1988. While this collection probably does not contain all the information any researcher would require, it may serve as an excellent starting point. The reports are succinct (approximately one and a half typed page per report) and informative, resulting in a very brief, but tidy summary of the activities and finances of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. These reports are very readable and provide a sense of the atmosphere of the institution. A researcher interested in these materials should also examine Collection 90-001, in which more detailed reports to the Board are housed.

Accession 98-045 contained Director's Reports from 1903 through 1949, but in June 2010 was combined with Accession 00-01, which, as a continuation of 98-045, contained Director's Reports from 1950 through 1988. Accession 00-01 now contains the entire collection of Superintendent and Director's Reports.

The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.

This collection was minimally processed in 2009-2011, as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories. A minimally processed collection is one processed at a less intensive rate than traditionally thought necessary to make a collection ready for use by researchers. When citing sources from this collection, researchers are advised to defer to folder titles provided in the finding aid rather than those provided on the physical folder.

Employing processing strategies outlined in Mark Greene's and Dennis Meissner's 2005 article, More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal With Late 20th-Century Collections, the project team tested the limits of minimal processing on collections of all types and ages, in 23 Philadelphia area repositories. A primary goal of the project, the team processed at an average rate of 2-3 hours per linear foot of records, a fraction of the time ordinarily reserved for the arrangement and description of collections. Among other time saving strategies, the project team did not extensively review the content of the collections, replace acidic folders or complete any preservation work.

Wagner Free Institute of Science
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Holly Mengel
Finding Aid Date
December 15, 2009
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
Access Restrictions

Reports from 1940-1988 are restricted. Please contact the Librarian for further information. The remainder of the collection is open for research use.

Use Restrictions

Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Wagner Free Institute of Science with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.

Collection Inventory

Superintendent's Reports, 1903-1915.
Box 1 Folder 1-12
Director's Reports, 1916-1949.
Box 1 Folder 13-29
Director's Reports, 1950-1988.
Box 2 Folder 30-49

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