The Collector Collected: William Wagner and his Free Institute of Science

A selection of Representative Men of Philadelphia – Centennial Portrait Gallery, W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 ( Library of Philadelphia)
Some of the Beetles at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

People aren’t caught like insects, poked through with pins and mounted behind glass, although photographer W. Curtis Taylor did something akin to that at America’s centennial celebration in 1876. With his camera (instead of a net) Taylor collected 87 “noteworthy citizens”and titled the collection Representative Men of Philadelphia. Among the assembled all-white cohort were lawyers, judges, engineers, architects, artists, clerics, government officials, scientists, educators, manufacturers, publishers, a librarian a poet and more.

(Sets found their way to the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia, which shares them here at

The practice of collecting, classifying and presenting men as specimens of achievement caught on. The North American Press presented an expanded collection of manufacturers, merchants, realtors, engravers, photographers, brewers, distillers, ship builders, railroaders, physicians, journalists in 1891. You can peruse Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians online. Likewisewe scroll through the 1,552 portraits assembled by Moses King in 1902 (nearly 18 times the number Curtis assembled) in Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians(Again and again, 100% were men and—you guessed it—all were white.)

Maybe one of the most ironic specimens Taylor collected was William Wagner, himself a collector, who made a name for himself acquiring, displaying and lecturing about all kinds of natural history specimens. Below is something about Wagner’s legacy, an intact “rare survival” of a 19th-century institution at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue in North Philadelphia.

William Wagner, 1876 ( Library)
William Wagner, from Representative Men of Philadelphia, photograph by W. Curtis Taylor, 1876 ( Library of Philadelphia)
The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue.  (Wagner Free Institute of Science)

“Formally incorporated in 1855, the Institute had its inception in a public lecture series begun in the early 1850s by founder William Wagner (1796-1885), a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, gentleman scientist, and lifelong collector of natural history specimens. Believing strongly that education in the sciences should be available to everyone, Wagner began offering free lectures on science at his home, Elm Grove, a colonial farm estate then on the outskirts of the city. To illustrate the lectures, he drew on the vast collection of specimens he had gathered since his childhood, including many he had acquired during the years he spent traveling around the world as an agent for the well-known Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. These lectures became so popular that by 1855 he moved them to a public hall to accommodate the rapidly growing audience, and appointed a faculty to teach six evenings a week on subjects ranging from paleontology and chemistry to botany and architecture. All the classes were offered free of charge with an open admission policy that allowed women as well as men to attend. Based on the success of earlier lectures, in 1859 Wagner began construction on a building that would become the permanent home for his collections and his educational program.

“The Wagner Institute’s natural history museum contains more than 100,000 specimens illustrating the various branches of the natural world. The Museum includes founder William Wagner’s mineral collection – one of the oldest in the country – and his fossil collection, representing many important European and American localities and collecting sites of the nineteenth century. Mounted animal skeletons, skulls, and skins; birds; an extensive regional entomological collection; and shells from around the world are on display, along with fossils collected on Institute sponsored expeditions to the American South, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions, as well as the Caribbean. Specimens collected on Institute expeditions include many “type specimens,” the first identification of a new species. Perhaps the best-known of these specimens is the North American saber-toothed cat, Smilodon floridanus, discovered in 1886 on an Institute expedition to Florida. These fossils are on display in the exhibition hall near dinosaur bones collected by noted paleontologist and Wagner lecturer, Edward Drinker Cope. All specimens are displayed in the cherry wood cases constructed for them in the 1880s, and many retain the original handwritten curator’s labels. The specimens are arranged especially for study. The exhibit is one of the largest systematically-arranged collections on display in the country. It also serves as a resource for scholarly research.”

You haven’t been there yet? You should add it to your collection of Philly history experiences. It’s one of the all-time most authentic. And the Wagner is open, free, Tuesday through Friday, 9 AM to 4 PM.