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Edwin AtLee Barber Records

Identifier: BAR

Scope and Contents

The Edwin AtLee Barber records include both general and administrative correspondence from Barber’s tenure at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. The museum's name changed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1938. Materials date from 1898 to 1933. Included in the collection are letters sent to Barber after his death; some of these letters were answered by Barber’s wife or daughter. This collection contains correspondence covering a broad range of topics and is especially rich in correspondence regarding acquisitions, appraisal, and the identification and authentication of artifacts. Consequently, the files also include rubbings of identification marks, tracings of patterns and sketches and photographs of artifacts. This collection also provides considerable information about day-to-day decisions that Barber made regarding staffing, building maintenance, acquisitions, publications, and exhibitions; as a result, the files include blueprints, measured drawings, and paper and fabric samples. The records are divided into two series: “General correspondence” and “Administrative correspondence.”

General correspondence is divided into two subseries: “a. 1901 to 1911” and “b. 1912 to 1916." The files in each subseries are then arranged alphabetically. In the two subseries, inclusive dates may be different from what the subseries name indicates. Some correspondents also appear in both series. Subseries "a. 1901 to 1911" and "b. 1911 to 1916" contain correspondence relating to Barber’s many duties associated with the Museum. These subseries are similar in content and are divided by date ranges. As head of the Museum’s Bureau of Identification, Barber offered authentication and appraisal of artifacts—most often ceramic objects, on which he was an authority. Both of these subseries include documentation of art objects in the form of photographs, drawings, and rubbings. Barber corresponded with scholars, collectors, dealers of art and antiques, Philadelphia city officials, publishers, and directors of other museums, as well those with ties to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. His correspondents include: members of the Associate Committee of Women; the Commissioners of Fairmount Park and co-administrators of Memorial Hall; Charles E. Dana; Mrs. William D. Frismuth, Honorary Curator of Musical Instruments; Henry Charles Lea; John D. McIlhenny (Board Member of the Museum); Samuel Robineau, of the Keramic Studio Publishing Company; Theodore Search (President of the Board of Trustees); and Howard F. Stratton (Director of the Art Department of the School); and the Walpole Society, which was dedicated to the study of American decorative arts, architecture, and history. There is a brief, but notable, correspondence with Henry Chapman Mercer, historian, president of the Bucks County Historical Society, and head of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. The correspondence with Mercer spans from 1913 to 1916 and relates to cast iron stove plates and furnaces, as well as the book Mercer was writing on the subject. Also of interest is the brief exchange between Barber and William H. Holmes, Head Curator of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. This correspondence relates to Barber's last exhibition and catalog for the museum: Exhibition of "Fakes" and Reproductions .

The Administrative correspondence series dates from 1901 to 1917 and is arranged alphabetically by correspondent. The records contain extensive correspondence with six notable members of the Museum community: James L. Allan, Assistant Treasurer; John Story Jenks, Vice President of the Board of Trustees and art collector; John D. McIlhenny, Board of Trustees; Leslie Miller, Principal of the School of Industrial Art; and John T. Morris, Vice President of the Board of Trustees and art collector. Allan wrote mainly of checks received and requesting checks to be sent. Jenks, identified as “Chairman”, wrote to authorize expenditures at all levels—from trolley placards to fine furniture. Correspondence with McIlhenny and Morris deals with assessing and approving acquisitions and negotiating the payments for them. Miller wrote regarding both School and Museum matters. This series also contains letters from William Platt Pepper written to Barber. Pepper was a lawyer who served as Vice President of the Corporation and Managing Director of the Museum from 1876 to 1878, President from 1882 to 1897, and “Director” and Vice President from 1898 to 1907. After Pepper’s death in 1907, the title of the Chief Officer of the Museum was changed from Curator to Director. Pepper’s letters deal mainly with acquisitions (including the Bloomfield Moore Collection), exhibitions, publications, Board and Committee Meetings, and personal matters. Pepper conducted Museum business from his law office or from home; most of the letters are on stationery indicating he was the Executor of the Estate of Henry Seybert, or on stationary from his home at 1730 Chestnut Street. Pepper’s letters were removed from a letterbook and were conserved and arranged chronologically. Although the bulk of the Administrative Correspondence dates from Barber’s tenure as Director of the Museum (1907 to 1916); Barber was the Museum’s Curator while corresponding with Pepper.


  • 1898-1933
  • Majority of material found within 1901-1916


Language of Materials

Materials in English, Italian, German, French, Persian, Swiss German and Catalan are found in this collection.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Edwin AtLee Barber Records are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes as stated.

Biographical / Historical

Edwin AtLee Barber was Curator/Secretary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1901 to 1907, Director/Curator from 1907 to 1916 and Honorary Curator of American Pottery and Porcelain from 1893 to 1916. His great interest was in pottery, porcelain, and ceramics, primarily early American works. A scholar and prolific writer, Barber wrote and published numerous articles on his specialty. He is considered a pioneering scholar in his field. Barber spelled his middle name with a capital L, as Edwin AtLee Barber, whenever the choice was left up to him, but others usually spelled it with a small l, including the Library of Congress.

Barber was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1851. His family included distinguished heroes of the Revolutionary War, as well as early captains of industry. When he was a child, Barber's family moved to Pennsylvania and then to Iowa, but Barber returned East for his schooling. He graduated from the Williston Seminary in East Hampton, Massachusetts, in 1869. He later attended Lafayette College where he earned a Master of Arts degree in English In 1880, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in 1893.

In 1874, Barber went West with the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. The following year his travels took him to sites of Native American ruins in Utah and Arizona, where his interest in American pottery was likely stimulated. At this time Barber also was reporting for the New York Herald as a special correspondent. In 1879, Barber moved to the Philadelphia area to become a Post Office Superintendent and later an Officer of the United States Civil Service Examining Board.

After his relocation to Philadelphia, Barber became interested in museum work. In 1879, he was appointed Chief of the Department of Archaeology of the Permanent Exhibit in Fairmount Park, and in 1893, was appointed Honorary Curator of Pottery and Porcelain at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art). In addition, he was the Secretary of the Corporation and Curator from 1901 to 1916. In a letter to A. Morris Carter, Secretary to the Director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Barber outlined his own tasks in a letter of February 25, 1907: “The Curator, who is also the Secretary of the Corporation and the various Committees, is acting Curator for all of the twelve departments of the Museum; he arranges and installs all of the collections, prepares all of the labels for printing; edits the Museum Bulletin and Annual Report, and prepares for publication all of the Guides, Handbooks, catalogues and Art Primers. He conducts the Bureau of Identification of Art Objects; collects the annual Membership dues; acts as Superintendent of the building and have direct charge of the guards and all other employees.” ("Series Ia.", Box 3, folder 2)

William Platt Pepper served as the Museum's director until his death in 1907. Upon Pepper's death, Barber's title changed from Curator to Director. Barber's tenure at the Museum occurred during a critical period of institutional growth and self-definition. Through Barber's influence, the Museum placed great emphasis on the decorative arts, a focus which has remained constant through the years. An avid collector and a recognized authority (specifically of Pennsylvania German pottery and early American glassware), Barber also authored the acclaimed text, Pottery and Porcelain of the United States .

Barber married Nellie Louise Parker in 1880. On December 12, 1916, Barber died of pneumonia, and was survived by his wife and their daughter.


19.6 linear feet (47 document boxes)


The Edwin Atlee Barber Records contains correspondence covering a broad range of topics and is especially rich in correspondence regarding acquisitions, appraisal, and the identification and authentication of artifacts. They provide information about Barber’s role as both Curator/Director and administrator of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art and his activities as a scholar.

Processing Information

Finding aid prepared by Carey Hedlund and Alina Josan. The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project. This collection was minimally processed as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories.

Processors have preserved the existing folder arrangement (presumably carried over from the original filing system maintained by Barber's record keepers) and merely augmented existing folder titles when needed. Quotation marks in folder titles are used to indicate language used by previous record keepers. The alphabetization system is idiosyncratic, with some correspondence filed by name, others by institutions or subject, and still others by geographic location (for example The Art Institute of Chicago is filed as Chicago, the Art Institute of).

Guide to the Edwin AtLee Barber Records
Finding aid prepared by Carey Hedlund, Alina Josan
2013 October 24
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States