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A woman in a white sleeveless dress and wearing white archival gloves removes a folder from a box.

Archivist Stephanie Ross shared a few of her favorite pieces and stories from the Emma Willard School Archives in the Fall/Winter 2023 edition of Signature magazine.

Treasures are hidden in closets, drawers, boxes, attics, and antique shops—ephemera from over 200 years of Emma Willard School history. Many of these items have made their way to the Archives in the basement of Dietel Library to be cherished for generations to come, donated by curious and preservation-minded alumnae and their families. Our community shares a collective passion for remembering and bequeathing the elements that made their lives on Mount Ida unforgettable.

Assistant Director of Research and Archives Stephanie Ross, new to the school in 2022, brought fresh eyes and an excitement to discover and share our rich history with students, families, alumnae, and the world. During her first year, she’s connected with several families who have gifted items from their own time at Emma or that they’ve found “in the wild.” 

“My favorite item right now is that portrait that’s on display,” Stephanie says, pointing to an all-school photo whose frame stretches across the top of a shelf of rare books. “It represents a lot of the qualities that we love here so much: the community, this campus. This portrait in particular was given to the archives by a legacy family, the Zahnleuters.” Mary Beth ’16, Heidi ’18, Molly ’20, and their mother Andrea discovered the framed photo in a vintage shop in Poughkeepsie. 

A long black and white photo of the entire school circa 1915 in front of campus .

The photo found and donated to the archives by the Zahnleuter family, after finding it in an antique shop in Poughkeepsie.

“We were so excited and actually slightly surprised that we'd come across it,” Mary Beth shares. News of the photo had traveled by word of mouth through more than a few people to get to the Zahnleuters. “Emma grads like myself and my sisters always have a knack for noticing ‘Emma in the Wild,’ as we like to describe it. While we don't know when exactly this photo is from or who is in it, maybe a family member of one of the girls in the picture will see it one day when they come back to Emma and it will put a smile on their face, remembering their loved one. That's what it's all about!”

Items arrive on the archivist's desk in a steady stream. A mounted letterpress cut of Sage Tower, used to print the image with a letterpress, was discovered by Daryl Ann Neighbors Filandro ’73 during a random search of eBay. She delivered it into Stephanie’s hands during Reunion. An Emma Willard Athletic Association bracelet, class ring, and field hockey sticks (now hanging on the wall in Athletic Director Liz Parry’s office) were donated by the late Leigh Dean ’55, who would go on to leave her entire estate to the school. 

Two women smiling at the camera, one is holding a letterpress.

Archivist Stephanie RossDaryl Ann Neighbors Filandro ’73, and the letterpress of Sage Tower.


A metal letterpress of a tower, on a grey paper background.

The letterpress of Sage tower, found by Daryl Ann Neighbors Filandro ’73 during a random search on Ebay.

Beyond the individual items that have been entrusted her care, Stephanie’s favorite things in the archives can best be sorted and described by collection.


Clothing Collection

Among the most intriguing articles of history stored in the archives are pieces of clothing. A two-piece green silk day dress, reported to be one of Emma Hart Willard’s own, is trimmed with embroidery employing gold metallic and autumnal colors. The dress is a typical, but excellent, example of the kind of day dress worn in the 1850s and early 1860s, featuring a short bodice and bell-shaped "pagoda" sleeves trimmed with fringe. On close inspection, one can see the original hand-stitching alongside later adjustments to the hem, made with machine stitches and more contemporary, cotton-blend thread.

A green silk 1850s/60s dress in a storage box with paper.

A two-piece green silk day dress, purported to be one of Emma Hart Willard’s own.

Another box is filled with uniforms, labeled 1915–1929: now-yellowed white silk and cotton shirts, dark navy wool and chambray sailor-inspired uniforms—which can be seen in use in the 1910-20s photograph discovered by the Zahnleuter family—with embroidered sleeves and a similarly-adorned white sailor’s hat. A dotted Swiss dinner dress belonging to Jane Kight Redden ’40, a yellow gingham-checked everyday dress from Betsy Upton Stover ’69, Nancy Fleigh Daugherty ’64’s white shirtwaist dress, and a salmon twin to it, worn by Tara Collins-Gordon ’63, all speak to decades of shifting uniform style. Rounding out the collection are a variety of wool uniform blazers, each with their own era of Emma Willard School insignia embroidered on their pockets. 



An antique chambray sailor dress in flatlay.

A chambray sailor-inspired uniform, like the one seen in the school portrait above, from the late 1910s or early 1920s. 


Writings and Remembrances of Emma Hart Willard

The archives have preserved a number of fascinating artifacts from Emma Hart Willard’s life and beyond—music written to accompany a poem she wrote during a fearsome storm while sailing home from Europe, her indelible “Plan for Improving Female Education,” many of her original textbooks, and a journal containing hand-written poetry, remembrances, and autographs from her students. These words about Emma Hart Willard show the depth of one student’s appreciation:

“The name of Emma, oft the grateful eye has fill'd with ears of pleasure at the thought of her—whose genius triumph'd o'er restraint, whose self-devotion purchas'd and bestow'd on orphan spirits, comforted and rais'd from poverty and scorn, a crown of worth. The name of Emma shines upon the page of female excellence—in ‘living light’—unsullied and alone.” —Seneca, December 5, 1828, Troy Female Seminary


An old notebook with 19th century handwriting.

A journal containing hand-written poetry, remembrances, and autographs from Emma Hart Willard's students.

Obituaries and memorials written upon Madame Willard’s passing in 1870 are lovingly stored alongside fragile copies of a dedication in her honor that was printed and distributed by “The Women of America” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A seldom-seen lithograph portrait of Emma Hart Willard, which was used in a turn-of-the-20th-century news article, was nestled at the bottom of the box. Now that it’s been rediscovered, Stephanie plans to keep it out for display and preservation.

An old piece of paper in 19thC hand with "notes on plan for female ed" at the top.

Emma Hart Willard's handwritten notes for her “Plan for Improving Female Education.”


Generations of Publications

From the earliest catalog on file from 1833 to decades of handbooks to the hundreds of issues of The Triangle, The Clock, and The Gargoyle, the Archives contain a treasure-trove of individual and institutional memories preserved for perpetuity. 

“There are many poems from early Triangle issues that are really special,” Stephanie recalls from her time exploring the collection. “Students really identify with them too. It's also funny to see that there are some challenges that always come back again.” An example of this can be found in a 1908 issue of The Triangle where students were complaining about the schedule, reminiscent of recent years coming out of COVID, when the schedule has shifted repeatedly requiring students to re-orient themselves each year.

 A pile of yearbooks shown by their spines on a table.

Several editions of "The Gargoyle" in the archives. 

Kiki Y. ’24 has found particular inspiration for her role as editor of The Gargoyle. “I’m especially attracted by the ones that are very early in the 1900s,” Kiki shares. “They have line drawings that give more of the ‘Emma feeling’ than more current ones.” Describing how recent issues of the yearbook display each student’s unique personality, Kiki finds that older issues reflect the feel of the community as a whole. “I included drawings last year that are similar to the ones I saw in the archives. This year, I want to incorporate the distinct vibe of the classical feel that conveys ‘Emma Willard’ alongside the diversity and color of individual personalities.”


A selection of chapbook style booklets that say "The Triangle" on the fronts.


The Rittase Photography Collection

While hundreds of photos (some identified, some not) fill the basement shelves, among the most stunning photographs in the historical collections are those taken by noted photographer William M. Rittase (American, 1894–1968). He captured life at Emma Willard School throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, covering everything from architecture to student life to academics. 

A vintage photograph of two girls with science equipment.

Students posing with science equipment for the Riasse photos taken in the 1930s-1950s.

“I think they're really beautiful and interesting,” Stephanie shares. “They tell so many stories about that period of time. Those could make a wonderful book, honestly, of just this one period during the school history.”


A black and white photo of students sitting at tables working in a library.

Students working in Lyon-Remington, then the library. 

As beautiful as the Rittase photography is, it also highlights the changing composition of Emma over the years. What was once a lace for young white women of means has transformed over time into the diverse community we see in photographs today.


To narrow down what is a “favorite” in the expansive collection at Emma Willard proves quite a challenge indeed. Another favorite of Stephanie’s are the many scrapbooks in the collection. “Scrapbooks tell the personal histories of each student who left them behind,” Stephanie shares. “They are very interesting to go through.” Herbariums document the flora of the day and give a glimpse into the early study of botany on Mount Ida. Trophies tell the stories of contests long-forgotten and the students who excelled in everything from public speaking to geometry. 

In addition to the allure of spending hours engrossed in the discovery of bygone eras, the archives present a particular challenge from an archivist’s perspective. Folders of undated, unidentified photos are commonplace. Many items await digitization and cataloging into a searchable index. “Last year, I had a group of students coming on Wednesday afternoons, and I think this year I want to have a little more structure with that,” Stephanie shares. “Students just want to be here—they want to experience it and see what’s down here. With some realistic goals, we could be very productive.”

Stephanie’s experience at Reunion 2023 is a perfect example of what can be accomplished by getting the right people in the room with a stack of photos. “The alums did an amazing job with identifying items. I got goosebumps when Ginny walked over,” Stephanie enthuses, referring to Virginia Brodhead LaPierre ’58. “She was the first one at the table where I had spread out all of these photos with Post-Its and pencils. She picked up a photograph and said, ‘This is my class. This is my roommate.’ She was able to identify every single person in that photo.” 

Several women standing around a table in a library with photographs and post-it notes.

Alumnae at Reunion 2023, working to identify people in photographs. 


With the digital catalog now in use, it’s possible to share collections online. Stephanie would like to have students help scan the photos that were identified during Reunion. “I would love to share these photos with alums to let them know that their work was really beneficial,” she says. “It would be really special.”

Stephanie’s next step to further the preservation of the Emma Willard School Archives is a site visit from Documentary Heritage Preservation Services of New York, a collaboration between the New York State Archives Documentary Heritage Program and the New York State Library Conservation/Preservation Program. “Their work will identify key priorities and goals for our archives,” Stephanie shares. This archival needs assessment is set to take place by the end of 2023.

For the intellectually curious and lovers of history—which, honestly, is everyone in the Emma Willard community—a visit to the basement of Dietel is a pilgrimage. Whether coming to reminisce or to help digitize and create record of its treasures, the Emma Willard School Archives are, themselves, one of our community’s favorite things. 

For a look at more items from this feature and in the Emma Willard School archives, visit the Archives Feature on our website. 

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2023 edition of Signature Magazine. 


Find more interesting stories about Emma Willard School on our Newsroom page.