Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Addie's Plaque, George's Hair

January-February 2002

When a construction crew demolished a wall on the east side of the level-2 stacks in Widener during Phase 1 of renovations, they came upon a tarnished bronze plaque mounted in a crevice inside the wall. An inscription read: "Here worked Addie Frances Rowe, 1860-1938, Friend and Aider of Scholars."

Research in the Harvard Archives revealed that Rowe worked at Harvard for 45 of her 78 years, helping to prepare the books of University professors and visiting scholars for publication. She had no official title or job description, so far as is known, and indeed she may not have been an employee of Harvard at all, being paid instead by publishers or authors. At first she worked in the history department, proofreading and checking references, and then moved over to the English department. In August of 1915 she became the first non-faculty person to be assigned a study carrel in the stacks of the newly finished Widener--carrel 209. There she sat for 23 years perfecting the works of others.

English professor Hyder E. Rollins and Rowe teamed on many projects, and she judged him "one of my dearest friends." He urged her to write the story of her life, which she did with great economy of words, and it was printed after her death by the Harvard University Press in an edition of 55 copies, which Rollins distributed largely to her friends and family. He contributed an introduction.

"She became progressively more odd-looking," he wrote. "Style and dress meant nothing to her, as they are popularly supposed to mean nothing to all scholars. The quaintness of her 'costumes,' though it often caused smiles in a neighborhood where (according to the libels of outlanders) women are noted for their lack of style, would have attracted little, if any, attention in the British Museum."

Rowe had another talent. She kept a signature array of pink and red pelargoniums in her study carrel, and they grew to heights unprecedented in Rollins's experience and astonishing to Rowe herself. They "were small for a number of years," she wrote, "but finally those at the sides began to grow tall suddenly, reached the middle of the high windows, and kept on growing up....I have cut off the top of the tallest plant (over six feet tall and in the same little pot it started in!) twice by a foot at least, else it would long ago have reached the top of the window and been blossoming in the next stall above."

After Rowe's death, the director of the library readily allowed the commemorative plaque to be put up in the stacks. Now released from its subsequent entombment in a wall, it is on display with other items of interest concerning the renovations underway.

Further in the lost-and-found department: a facilities-maintenance person from Widener, getting ready for construction in the area of the rotunda off the Harry Elkins Widener Room, came upon a vault in a closet. It contained an arresting array of items, and thinking that he had discovered buried treasure--forgotten curiosities, at least--librarians sent up a glad shout, noticed in the media. As things turned out, the vault was a storage spot for the Widener Room curators, who are actually Houghton Library staff members. They were well aware of the vault and its contents. The drama of the discovery dissipated. The library's conservation laboratory made a formal inventory of the vault's contents, did some preservation work on various pieces, and distributed them all to Houghton, the Harvard Archives, and other libraries. Law School librarians, for instance, were pleased to get an iron seal once used by Isaac Royall, who funded the University's first chair in the law by a gift of land in 1779. The vault also contained, in part, commemorative medals, postcards, sabers, uniforms, silver spoons and forks, a bronze of Abraham Lincoln, a plaster bust of Mussolini, and a lock of George Washington's hair. "In collectors' circles," says Beth Brainard, the library's director of communications, "there are as many locks of George's hair floating around as there are pieces of the Cross."