This primary source set focuses on glass plate negatives and lantern slide photographs depicting Pennsylvania higher education institutions and their predecessors, including Haverford College, Millersville State Normal School (now Millersville University), and the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (now Temple University’s Ambler Campus).

Towards the end of the 19th century, colleges in the United States were changing in order to attract more students to their campuses. Colleges began allowing students to choose their courses of study and offering enjoyable social experiences with extracurricular activities, student organizations, and athletics. Research universities first appeared in the United States at the end of the 19th century, which added academic credibility to the American higher education system as a whole. By the 1910s, middle class families viewed college as the ticket to obtaining white collar employment for their children. Upper class families also relied on higher education to give their children access to managerial positions in the newly industrialized economy, thus preserving their high status within society. The college experience was becoming a meaningful part of American culture.

Photography was also advancing during the late 19th century. Glass plate negatives were first invented in the 1850s, and they quickly became popular because they produced more detailed photographs and multiple prints could be made from the negative. Improvements to the production of glass plate negatives in the 1870s made using glass plates easier, more convenient, and more accessible to amateur photographers. A variation on glass plate negative photography was the lantern slide, a positive image reproduction of an existing negative, used for both education and entertainment.

Photographs provide a wealth of information to historians, as they recreate in exact detail a particular moment from the past. However, from the early beginnings of photography, photographs were composed with an audience and purpose in mind. Photographs often marked important moments and milestones in a person’s life, much like we use photography today. Elements like the subjects’ poses, expressions, clothing and props or objects visible in the frame were used to signify characteristics about the subject such as their social status or character. Learning to “read” photographs as primary sources like historians requires that we examine the composition choices of photographs in addition to what the photographs portray.


British Library. (n.d.). Historic Photographs: Photographic Processes. Retrieved from http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/photographicproject/photographicprocesses.html

Davidson, J. W., & Lytle, M. H. (2005) After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. 5th ed. McGraw Hill. 

Kashatus, W. C. (2002). Past, Present, and Personal: Teaching Writing in U.S. History. Heinemann. 

Labaree, D. F. (2017) A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. University of Chicago Press. 

New York Public Library (n.d.). An Introduction to Photographic Processes. Retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/collections/nypl-recommendations/guides/photographic-processes

Oregon State University Libraries (2019). Guide to Early Photographic Formats and Processes in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Retrieved from https://guides.library.oregonstate.edu/c.php?g=914827

Educational Purpose

Educators may wish to incorporate this primary source set as a means for developing students’ historical analysis skills. This primary source set is intended for students to practice and gain a greater understanding of how to analyze photographs as primary sources. This set includes a sampling of glass plate negative photography from the late 1800s and early 1900s depicting student life at several Pennsylvania colleges. Students will reflect on continuity and change over time as they encounter how the college experience in Pennsylvania has not always been the same as it is today. Finally, this set could also be incorporated into a broader unit related to U.S. history at the turn of the twentieth century.

Grade Levels

This set can be tailored to fit grades 9-12.

State Standards

PA Core: Academic Standards for Reading in History and Social Studies

CC.8.5.11-12.A. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CC.8.5.11-12.B. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Secondary Standards for History: Historical Analysis and Skills Development

8.1.12.A. Evaluate patterns of continuity and rates of change over time, applying context of events. 

8.1.12.B. Evaluate the interpretation of historical events and sources, considering the use of fact versus opinion, multiple perspectives, and cause and effect relationships.

Source Set

1. 1st Eleven of the Haverford College Cricket Club on a Bench Near Cricket Field.
2. Class of ‘89, Haverford College.
3. Interior of the Library, Haverford College from Folding Doors.
4. Students in Classroom at Millersville State Normal School.
5. Group of Coeds on Steps of Lake-Bridge.
6. 3 Male Students on Steps of Lake-Bridge.
7. 3 Female Students in Rowboat on Lake.
8. Students Pruning Grapevines.
9. Gardening Class.

Discussion Questions

Central Inquiry Question: What is the importance of photography in storytelling and displaying everyday life? Why do we continue to keep and save photographs?

Part 1: Observations

What are your first impressions or reactions to each photograph? 

Observe the students in as much detail as you can.

  • What are their genders?
  • What are their ethnicities?
  • What are they wearing?
  • What are they doing? How are they posing?
  • What objects are they interacting with? 

Observe the students’ surroundings in as much detail as you can. 

  • What is the setting of the photograph? 
  • What details do you observe in the setting?

Where and when was each photograph taken? Use contextual information from the description of each photograph to help you answer.   

What is the mood of each photograph? For example, is the photograph candid or formal? Is the mood light or serious?

  • What are the students’ facial expressions? How do these facial expressions communicate the mood of the photograph? 

Part 2: Critical Thinking

What are the similarities of the students across the different photographs? What are their differences?

Based on your observations, what inferences can we make about college students and student life during this time period? 

Based on your observations, what can we learn about the activities and studies offered at each of the schools that are depicted? 

Based on your observations, why do you think each photograph was taken? Who might have been the intended audience of each photograph? 

The photographers of the Haverford College and Millersville State Normal School photographs were both students at these institutions at the time. The photographs of the Pennsylvania Horticulture School for Women were likely taken by a hired professional photographer. 

  • How does this information contribute to or change your understanding of the photographs?
  • What can we learn about photography during this time period from this information? 

Refer to the additional resources about the histories of the colleges depicted in the photographs. 

  • How does the additional context add to your understanding of the photographs? 
  • What questions do you still have about the experiences of Pennsylvania college students during this time period?
  • What sources might help you find the answers to those questions? 

What are some strengths of using these photographs as evidence to understanding student life during this time period? What are some limitations of using these photographs as evidence?

Classroom Activities

  1. Student Life Then & Now: Ask students to share with the class photographs they have taken in their daily lives, in a school context, or during an extracurricular activity. (These photographs could be printed out or compiled digitally into a slideshow.) Students will work in small groups to compare and contrast the historic photographs with their own experiences as students as depicted in their photographs. Now ask students to examine why they chose this photograph and how historians might view the students’ photographs in 50 years. This could include questions such as:

    • What does the photograph you chose depict?
    • Who is featured in the photograph?
    • What is the setting?
    • What story does the photograph tell?

    Additionally, students will analyze what their current-day photographs convey about the current time period. 

    Gallery Walk: A copy of each photograph is printed and displayed on the walls of the classroom along with poster paper. Students rotate around the room individually or in small groups to make observations about each photograph. Students can write their observations and questions on the poster paper for each photograph and comment on observations/questions written by other students. You may choose to incorporate questions from Part 1 of the discussion questions to guide students in this activity.

Additional Resources for Research

  1. Additional Resources on Pennsylvania College Histories: 

    Explore PA History (n.d.). Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women Historical Marker.

    Retrieved from https://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-130.

    Haverford College (n.d.). About Us: History. Retrieved from https://www.haverford.edu/about. [Access by selecting “History” and scrolling through the Timeline feature.]

    Millersville University (n.d.). History. Retrieved from https://www.millersville.edu/about/history/index.php.

    Additional Resources on Analyzing Photographs as Primary Sources: 

    Davidson, J. W., & Lytle, M. H. (2005) After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. 5th ed. McGraw Hill. 

    • Refer to Chapter 9, “Mirror with a Memory,” which focuses on photography.

    Kashatus, W. C. (2002). Past, Present, and Personal: Teaching Writing in U.S. History. Heinemann. 

    • Refer to Part One, “Past History: Teaching with Documents,” which provides a guide to teaching students how to analyze photographs as primary sources. 

    Mattson, R. (2009). Using Visual Historical Methods in K-12 Classroom: Tactical Heuristics. In Desai, D., Hamlin, J., & Mattson, R. (Eds.), History as Art Art as History (pp. 15-33). New York, New York: Routledge.

This set was created by Rachel Kim of the Temple University College of Education.

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