Working Conditions

A Woman's "Place"

Women worked in nearly every department of the museum, but there was still a strict hierarchy between the assistants, students at Harvard and Radcliffe, and the male curators who led departments. One Harvard student showed his uneasiness about women in science by describing women workers as “museum freaks.” Assistants were also expected to adhere to strict codes of behavior and dress. The close proximity between men and women who worked together at the museum only increased anxieties about the place of women in the scientific community.

Always Present, Rarely Seen

Here, the ghostly silhouette of an unnamed woman, right, as she works in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Entomology Collection, ca. 1890.

Courtesy of the Ernst Mayr Library ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Critical Tasks

Many tasks assigned to women assistants were repetitive and seemingly mundane. They often assisted curators with keeping records of donations, cleaning specimens, and writing labels for collections. Throughout the late nineteenth century, the museum’s collections were rapidly expanding, and museum assistants played an important role in organizing thousands of objects.

Elisabeth Lyell Anthony, 1880

Elisabeth Lyell Anthony, pictured here, was taken in 1880, about a decade after she began working at the museum. She was the daughter of John Gould Anthony, curator of shells and mollusks during the 1860s, who she began working for in 1869 as an assistant, diligently helping to sort and classify specimens and to prepare materials for exhibition. After his death, she continued to work at the museum, and she retired in 1919 after fifty years.

Courtesy of Garrison Family Photographs, Massachusetts Historical Society ©Massachusetts Historical Society

Agassiz’ Instructions for Anthony’s Shells

During the 1870s, Anthony and other women assistants spent months preparing shells for exhibition. This task involved cleaning the specimens and painstakingly gluing them to individual glass or slate tablets. Over several years, the assistants prepared thousands of shell tablets, laying them out on display following Louis Agassiz’ detailed instructions, left. The tablet, right, is the only one that survives.

Courtesy of the Museum of Comparative Zoology ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Specimen Labels

These labels created by Bertha Parker, a museum assistant, and Elvira Wood, Assistant Curator of Paleontology, were among hundreds written by museum assistants during the late nineteenth century. While these labels are rarely seen in public exhibits, they reveal the expertise of figures such as Wood and Parker in identifying specimens and gaining extensive knowledge of the collections.

Courtesy of the Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology ©President and Fellows of Harvard College