Packaged in cardboard, wrapped in bubblewrap, and labeled by number, 280 packages of glass plate negatives have occupied a significant amount of shelf space in the stacks of the Catherine Pelton Durrell ’25 Archives and Special Collections Library as long as anyone currently working there can remember.
We really didn’t know very much about them,” says college archivist Laura Streett. “The packaging doesn’t look ancient. It’s possible that they were packaged up like that for the move to the Boardman Road facility during the construction of the Ingram Library, but there’s no record of where they came from or who packaged them up. All we have is a list with a couple of words describing what might be in each package—for example, Class Day 1908, 5 plates.”
Streett and Ron Patkus, associate director of the libraries for special collections, didn’t want to unwrap them because they had no idea what condition they were in. The packaging needed to be removed in a controlled environment so the negatives could be assessed and stabilized. “This was one of about eight gazillion projects that needed to happen,” says Streett, “and we put it off because we thought they might be the negatives of images we already have in our collection.”
But a little detective work suggested that these might be new images. Working from the list, Streett cross-referenced with the collection. “So if the list said there were five negatives of Field Day 1921 in package 85, I would go to our field day collection and see how many images we had from that particular year. If we only had one image, then I knew that at least four of the plates had to be new images.”
And in fact, most of the images are new to the collection. The first 100 packages have recently returned from the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the 870 images they contained are now viewable online in the Vassar College Digital Library.
The plates processed thus far date between 1904 and 1935, and most were taken by E.L. Wolven, a Poughkeepsie photographer who was apparently hired by the college to record official college events such a Class Day, Founder’s Day, and Field Day. Some are actually images of images. Perhaps an alumna donated her photographs to the college, and Wolven then affixed them to a wall and made glass plate negatives of the prints. An example of this is the first image in the slide show of a woman filling up her steam-powered automobile from a fountain on Raymond Avenue.
Funded by a generous gift from the class of 1950, phase two of the conservation project is now underway. Packages 101-198, dates ranging from 1900 to 1956, are now at NEDCC and are expected to yield an additional 700 images some time this fall. Phase three, pending funding, includes packages 199-280, approximately 1,950 images from 1913 to 1961.
That’s a grand total of 3,520 images—a veritable treasure trove for aficionados of Vassar history. Enjoy!
--Julia Van Develder