Sara Yorke Stevenson, 1847-1921

Marian L. Christ is Associate Librarian and Head of Cataloging. She received her MLS from Drexel University and BA from...

Portrait of Sara Yorke Stevenson by Leopold Seyffert presented to the University Museum in 1917 in honor of her 70th birthday. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives Images Collection.

Sara Yorke Stevenson (APS 1895), an American museum curator, student, and patron of archaeology, held a prominent place in Philadelphia civic and educational life for many years.

Her parents, Edward Yorke and Sarah Hanna Yorke, moved their family to Paris in the late 1840s; Sara, their youngest child, was born in 1847. The Yorkes returned to America ten years later and enrolled their daughters in a day school in New Orleans. Ten year old Sara, demonstrating the determination that would serve her well throughout her life, not only objected to the school’s inadequacy, but convinced her parents to send her back to boarding school in Paris. She traveled to France accompanied by M. Achille Jubinal, a French medievalist, and his wife, who would act as Sara’s guardians. She studied at the Institution Descauriet and spent whatever free time the school allowed her in the Jubinal home, filled with his collection of antiques. He had gained a notable reputation in the literary and scientific world with his antiquities research, and Sara often met distinguished artists, writers, and statesmen in the Jubinal home. The experience fostered Sara’s own devotion to antiquities research.

Sara’s French education lasted until 1862. Her family, who had since left New Orleans for Mexico, summoned her home with somber news: her brother Ogden, who was working with their father to build a railroad, had been attacked and killed by bandits. Fifteen year old Sara arrived in Mexico, where Emperor Maximilian—who had been placed on the throne through French intervention—retained power through the presence of the French Army. Over the next five years, Sara and her family witnessed the Mexican people’s resentment of Maximilian, as well as the eroding support of his government on both domestic and international fronts, and decided to return to the United States. In 1867, Sara and her family sailed on the ship Vera Cruz to New Orleans. The Yorkes’ friends and acquaintances were long gone from New Orleans. Isolated, the family stayed only through the winter before moving to Brattleboro, Vermont.

The Yorkes had lived on payments from their Mexican investments, and that income, tied to a failing government, now ceased. Mr. Yorke was ill and needed medical care. Sara, whose French education had included music and dancing, supported the family by teaching singing and accepting a paid position in the local Congregational Church choir. At this point, Sara also became ill, her condition aggravated by the severe Vermont winters. Sara’s family, her father now dead, in 1868 decided she should move to Philadelphia to live with relatives she did not know. Sara soon won over her elderly relatives and stayed with them for two years until she married attorney Cornelius Stevenson in June of 1870. As Mrs. Stevenson entered into Philadelphia’s social life, she combined her fierce intellect, shrewd executive ability, and inexhaustible energy to lead the city’s civic and philanthropic affairs for many years.

This period in her life included the revival of her dormant love of antiquities research, sparked by a meeting with a family friend who collected antiques. Anthropology was not yet an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century, and anthropology clubs and professional societies provided opportunities for the independent scholar. She joined Professor Edward S. Morse (APS 1895), Dr. Daniel G. Brinton (APS 1869), and several other prominent Philadelphians to form the Folk-Lore Society. The Society developed into the Archaeological Association of the University of Pennsylvania, and later, at the suggestion of Mrs. Stevenson, became the Department of Archaeology.

This was the beginning of Sara Yorke Stevenson’s impressive career of academic service and achievement. In 1884, she became a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She co-founded the University of Pennsylvania's Free Museum of Science and Art (later known as the University Museum), which was proposed by University Provost Dr. William Pepper (APS 1870) and Dr. Charles C. Harrison (APS 1895), who would follow Dr. Pepper as Provost. She became Curator of the museum’s Egyptian and Mediterranean section in 1890. In 1891, the Oriental Club of Philadelphia, a group of professors from leading universities, changed its bylaws stipulating male membership in order to admit her. In 1893, she received an appointment to the Jury of Awards for Ethnology of the Department of Anthropology of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The appointments of Mrs. Stevenson and three other women to Exposition juries required an Act of Congress. In 1894 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania; she delivered her first public lecture on Egypt in a University of Pennsylvania series of lectures. In that same year, she became the first woman lecturer at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In 1895, she became the sixth woman elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Her career as an archaeologist never included fieldwork; her research was based on the analysis of material collected by others. From 1889-1905, Mrs. Stevenson developed the University Museum, and in particular, the Egyptian section. She was a major sponsor of archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology in Egypt and received many objects from his excavations for the museum. She served the museum first as Secretary, and then as the fifth and only female President of the museum’s Board of Managers. She resigned in 1905.

black and white image of bas-relief portrait
Bronze bas-relief portrait of Mrs. Stevenson by Robert Tait McKenzie, commissioned by her friends and presented to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in her memory in 1922.

Mrs. Stevenson’s scholarship did not end with her departure from the University Museum. She became curator of the Pennsylvania Museum at Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park (later the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and for the first time, due to family financial problems, accepted a salary. In 1908, Mrs. Stevenson offered the first museology course at the museum’s affiliated School of Industrial Art. Her students visited every museum in Philadelphia and studied all aspects of administration, conservation, and preservation. Also in 1908, she began the career for which she is most famous in Philadelphia, literary editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, as well as the author of two columns in the paper in which she entertained and informed readers for years. She maintained an exacting schedule, and, as a working woman now over 60, her long-standing interest in women’s suffrage became stronger than ever. She was a founding member of the Equal Franchise Society of Pennsylvania and became its president in 1909. She served the society in other executive or advisory positions until 1920, when it ceased to exist with the passage of the Federal Suffrage Amendment.

When World War I began in 1914, her devotion to France led to her chairmanship of the French War Relief Committee of the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania, work which raised the amount of $1,500,000 and gained the committee recognition by the French government. Mrs. Stevenson received the Cross of the Legion of Honor. She continued her considerable civic work until shortly before her death in 1921.

Langdon Warner, Director of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art from 1917 to 1923, spoke at a gathering to honor Mrs. Stevenson’s contributions to the city in 1922: “If women today find no difficulty in being recognized as scholars, and if their counsel is demanded in museums, it is due to Mrs. Stevenson in a far greater measure than our casual generation will ever know … No plan for civic betterment, public service, or clean government has come up in Philadelphia during half a century which has not been definitely and materially aided by Mrs. Stevenson. As co-founder and director of one museum and as the sole administrator and finally curator of another, her experience of such institutions exceeded that of any other woman in the country.”


Sources:

Notable Women of Pennsylvania. Edited by Gertrude Bosler Biddle and Sarah Dickenson Lowrie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942.

Philadelphia and the Development of Americanist Archaeology. Edited by Don D. Fowler and David R. Wilcox. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Sara Yorke Stevenson: February 19th 1847 - November 14th 1821. Philadelphia: Civic Club, 1922.
 

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