Mystery in the Library for Women’s History Month

While looking into the provenance of an object in the archives collection, I stumbled on this image — a woman in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences around 1909. The photograph has no identifications, but I immediately wanted to know who she was. 

Many of the women who appear in photographs and written records in our archives are anonymous or semi-anonymous, referred to (if at all) as Miss or, if married, by their husband’s name. We know that many women were part of the Academy’s history; we just don’t know their stories yet. Current and future research will change that.  And I began with this photograph.

Closeup of the mystery woman in question in the image above

With March as Women’s History Month in mind, I started to dig into the records, focusing first on women associated with the library. But this search led me in another direction, one that would result in a deep dive into our archives to reveal the long, rich contributions of Harriet Newell Wardle. 

In a 1919 report on the library in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Edward J. Nolan, then the librarian, made sure to mention “The cooperation of H. N. Wardle in the library.” (Proceedings Vol. 71) I immediately wondered if Wardle could be the woman in the photograph — but it turns out the Harriet Newell Wardle was not a librarian. She was the assistant to the curator of the archaeology collection, a position we would probably now refer to as a collections manager. She began to assist with the library in addition to the Archaeology Department in 1917 when the assistant librarian joined the Army to fight in World War I.

 Harriet Newell Wardle, or H. Newell Wardle as she was often referred to in documentation, started at the Academy in 1899 as a Jessup scholar. She was “appointed a Jessup Fund Student under the provision for females made by the late Mrs. Bloomfield H. Moore [Clara Jessup Moore] as an addition to the trust endowed by her father.” The Jessup fund was established in 1860 by the bequest of Augustus E. Jessup and still exists today. 

At the time, the fund was for the purpose of compensating young men (specified in the early announcement) to work directly with curatorial staff and collections at the Academy. In this way, men who had to work for a living could gain experience in a scientific institution since they couldn’t afford to volunteer. In 1888 Clara Jessup Moore gave money to the Academy to add to her father’s fund, and in 1892 she sent a request that the money be “applied on the same terms [as the young men] to the support of one or more young women.” The first woman to become a Jessup scholar seems to have been Helen M. Higgins, who was named in the 1895 Proceedings of the Academy.

Clara Jessup Moore

 Wardle received Jessup funds for 10 years and was, in addition, often referred to as an assistant or aide. In 1912 Wardle became a member of the Academy and continued to work with the archaeological collections. Her titles varied over the years as aide or assistant and often differed from her male counterparts, who were consistently referred to as assistants to the curators. 

Wardle contributed papers to the Proceedings and donated materials as well, but her passion seemed to have been for the Archaeology Collection. Her work on the collection was consistently called out each year in the Proceedings of the Academy, and she seems to have been the primary contributor to its care and order. 

Though we currently do not have an Archaeology Department, for 100 years we were a center for study and collecting. The Academy Archaeology Department included a few large donations, one of the most well-known being from Clarence B. Moore, who specialized in the archaeology of Native American sites. In 1929, in collaboration with Moore, the collection was moved to what is now the Museum of the American Indian in New York. This was the first step in eventually closing down the department. 

As the long-time caretaker of the collection, Wardle was deeply disappointed in the move, especially as it had happened without any consultation with her. Though other archaeology collections remained, Wardle resigned her position, making her indignation very clear. She then turned her focus to the Penn Museum, which would eventually become the repository for most of the Academy’s remaining archaeological and ethnographic collections.

Another unnamed woman in the library

 And what about that photograph of the woman in the library? Could that be Harriet Newell Wardle? It is possible, as she was one of the few women on staff at the time. But unless I can find a photograph that is identified as Wardle from a similar time period to compare, it would only be speculation. 

This brief look into the work of Harriet Newell Wardel is just the beginning of the opportunities we have to discover more about the hundreds of women who have contributed to the Academy over the last two centuries. The research continues with ever expanding plans that already involve staff, volunteers, students and more. 

By Jennifer Vess, Brooke Dolan Archivist. Images from the Academy Archives 


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