Robert Chambers collection on William Wagner and the history of the Wagner Free Institute of Science
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).
Robert Chamber served as the Director of the Wagner Free Institute of Science from 1946 to 1980. During his tenure, he collected and assembled a collection of material regarding William Wagner and the Wagner Free Institute of Science.
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 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 Heilpern, 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. Leidy’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. In 1901, a new wing was built and that housed the Free Library branch until the Columbia Avenue branch opened in 1962.
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 from 1980 to 1988; Roger Montgomery, Director from 1988 to 1992; and Susan Glassman, Director from 1993.
According to the National Register for 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 Form, 1989.
The Robert Chambers collection on William Wagner and the history of the Wagner Free Institute of Science consists of material collected by Robert Chambers. The collection contains correspondence, genealogical and family information, information on Williiam Wagner’s early business career with Stephen Girard, the Lennoxville Steam Saw Mill, and Snowden and Wagner, financial material, operational material for the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and personal material from Sydney T. Skidmore, a member of the Board.
This collection is arranged in four series: “William Wagner Personal Papers;” “William Wagner Business Papers;” “Skidmore Personal Papers;” and “Wagner Free Institute of Science Records.” Prior to the processing of this collection, Wagner Free Institute of Science staff identified almost all the material in this collection and assigned the material to a series. This intellectual arrangement has been maintained.
The “William Wagner Personal Papers” series contains papers that illustrate Wagner’s interests and background. The series includes genealogical, family and autobiographical material on William Wagner as well as education material from the Philadelphia Academy from which he graduated in 1808. In this series, researchers will find evidence of Wagner’s enduring interests in participation in intellectual societies, books, and the natural sciences. Information regarding Wagner’s marriage to and divorce from Caroline Say Moore and his later marriage to Louisa Binney is also included in the collection. Wagner saved a great deal of memorabilia from his honeymoon in Europe following his marriage to Louisa Binney and spent much of this time in Europe visiting natural science institutions and expanding his collections.
The “William Wagner Business Papers” series includes information on Wagner’s early business affairs: as supercargo for Stephen Girard, dealing mostly with the Schooners Helveticus and Rousseau; as co-owner of Snowden and Wagner; and as co-owner of Lenoxville Steam Saw Mill. Other mentions of ships of note included in the series are: Amelia and Caroline. The bulk of this collection consists of financial records of Wagner’s involvement in shipping.
Included in “The Skidmore Personal Papers” series is information regarding Sydney T. Skidmore and his family. The bulk of this series consists of family correspondence, but of note may be correspondence from S.A. Laurs to Sydney T. Skidmore regarding service in the Civil War. Skidmore’s papers also include Louisa Binney Wagner’s obituary and notes by a John Roberts on William Wagner which were written in 1965.
The “Wagner Free Institute of Science Records” series is divided into seven subseries: “Affiliated Organizations;” “Building Materials;” “Board Records;” “Financial Records;” “Publications;” “Library;” and “Museum.” Again, these subseries were assigned by a Wagner Free Institute of Science staff member prior to the processing of the collection and have been maintained.
Of note within this series is the correspondence which includes writers and recipients such as: R. B. Westbrook; Samuel Wagner; William Wagner; Thomas L. Montgomery; Joseph Willcox; Joseph Leidy; John Rothermel; William H. Dall of the Smithsonian Institute; and Charles Johnson, to name just a few. The topics of this correspondence include the University Extension Program, the Wagner Free Institute of Science building, specimen collecting and exchanges, financial information (including rentals and property issues), the publication of the Transactions, and the Museum at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Important materials within the series are reports such as the Actuary’s Report; the Librarian’s Report and the Museum Reports, the bulk of these ranging in date from 1899 to 1903.
This collection will almost certainly not provide a researcher with all the information needed—instead, this is an excellent starting point. Because these materials were, according to institutional memory, removed from other collections by Robert Chambers and kept close at hand due to their importance, these records will not tell the entire story. However, Chambers apparently thought them to be of particular interest and value and therefore, researchers will benefit greatly from consulting this finding aid. Researchers interested in the life of William Wagner, his early business efforts, Stephen Girard, Joseph Leidy, and the operation of the Wagner Free Institute of Science will find this collection to be of great interest.
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.
- Boyer, Carl
- Dall, William Healey, 1845-1927
- Girard, Stephen, 1750-1831
- Graham, John
- Leidy, Joseph, 1823-189
- Montgomery, Thomas Lynch, 1862-
- Rothermel, John
- Skidmore, Sydney Tuthill, 1844-1928
- Wagner, Caroline Moore Say
- Wagner, Louisa Binney, 1814-1898
- Wagner, Samuel, 1842-1937
- Wagner, William, 1796-1885
- Westbrook, Richard B., (Richard Brodhead)
- Willcox, Joseph
- Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania.
- Free Library of Philadelphia.
- Lennoxville Steam and Saw Mill.
- Snowden & Wagner.
- Wagner Free Institute of Science.
- Natural history libraries
- Natural history museums
- Science and technology libraries
- Science--Study and teaching
- Wagner Free Institute of Science
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Holly Mengel
- 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
This collection is open for research.
- 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.
Folders 7 and 8 contain the same material--Folder 7 contains photocopies of Folder 8. Due to the fragility of the papers, the staff of the Wagner Free Institute of Science requests that researchers use only the photocopies.