Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming Curator of Astronomical Photographs. Harvard College Observatory

[Background Note: The “Chest of 1900” was a time-capsule project to document everyday life at Harvard University for the month of March 1900. Many project participants contributed diaries; below is that of Williamina Paton Fleming, Curator of Astronomical Photographs at the Harvard College Observatory. Raphaelle Lapotre transcribed the journal during her three month fellowship at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, February – May 2015. Maria C. McEachern] 

Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming
Curator of Astronomical Photographs
Harvard College Observatory

[1] March 1, 1900. In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory 12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer. The measurements made with the meridian photometers are also reduced and prepared for publication in this department of the Observatory. From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be but little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and work involved in the reduction of these observations. My home life is necessarily different from that of other officers of the University since all housekeeping cares rest on me, in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses. My son Edward, now a junior in the Mass. Inst. of Technology, knows little or nothing of the value of money and, therefore, has the idea but that everything should be forthcoming on demand. – The first part of this morning at the Observatory was devoted to the revision of Miss Cannon’s work on the Classification of the bright [2] southern stars, which is now in preparation for the printer. The table giving the classification and the general table of stars arranged in the order of right ascension were assigned their places in the volume, and several pages of the remarks on the individual stars were read, criticized, corrected or questioned. – The work already done on the classification of the spectra of the faint stars for the Southern Draper Catalogue next came under discussion. It is proposed to divide this work into four zones having declinations +90° to + 30°, +29° to +0°, -0° to -29° and -30° to -90°, inclusive. The work of measurement is already well advanced, and we expect to accomplish much during the coming summer. Professor Bailey’s observations with the meridian photometer in South America then came up for examination. Several questions regarding the observations were considered, the constants of a number of series examined, and adopted. Various other pieces of work claimed attention during the morning. In the afternoon several matters of business required my attention in Boston. After attending to these I joined Mrs. S. I. Bailey, Miss Anderson, and my sister Mrs. Mackie at the Castle Square Theatre. The play was “The Firm of Girdlestone” and we all enjoyed it. Mrs. Bailey tried to persuade me to stop over and dine with her, and spend the night, but my little family needs me at [3] home in the morning. They are apt to be late for breakfast, and consequently for daily duties, when the head of the house is not there to get them going.

March 2. This day of Observatory work, beginning at 9 15 A.M. and ending at 6 00 P.M., has been devoted to miscellaneous odds and ends and a gathering together of loose strands. The early part of the morning was occupied with scientific correspondence and in sending out copies of “Standards of Faint Stellar Magnitudes”, No.2, to those who are expected to take part in the work of securing observations. Next in order came the remarks on Miss Cannons Classification of Spectra. This is very trying work as so many things have to be taken into consideration, especially where it is found necessary to change the form of a remark. Later we were able to put through the final work on 1h00m to 1h59.9m of Volume XLV, (photometric magnitudes of stars 7.5 and brighter), comparing and checking the remarks with the printer’s copy. The work on 0h of this catalogue had already been completed. Many other pieces of work were also discussed, among them the measurements of Algol variables on plates taken with the variable star apparatus. The Director favors turning this work over to some assistant in the laboratory who has never undertaken any work of this kind. It is work which  [4]  requires a thorough knowledge of the sequences of comparison stars for each variable, and as a large number of images of each star appears on every plate the task of identifying the comparison stars in the same exposure as the variable is generally extremely difficult, and requires considerable skill and patience. Therefore, I proposed leaving these measures in the hands of Miss Leland, who, like myself, has had considerable trouble with them already. – My small family has deserted me this evening. I am the loadstone left to prevent the house from blowing away. After dinner Miss Cannon found that the clouds had cleared away and the stars were coming out, so she went over to the Observatory to get her observations of the circumpolar variables with the 6 inch telescope. Edward has gone down to study with Mr. Garrett who is in his section (Mining Engineering Course) in Tech. Neyle Fish, Edward’s young friend who has been with us since Christmas night has gone to make some calls, and I am awaiting Miss Cannon’s return. If she gets home early we may be able to dispose of some of the questions regarding the remarks in her Classification. Meanwhile, I must see the “Herald”, and find out from it, if I can, the condition of the Boers and the British in South Africa. Edward talks of going out there when he finishes his course at the Institute.

[5] March 3. – Another full day at the Observatory from 9h0m to 6h0m. Mr. Waite called early to see the Director and I had quite a talk with him about his studies and his prospects. He was for several years an assistant in the Observatory, but left about the end of last year. He is studying to pass the examinations for a position in the Patent Office, and is very much interested in his work. Part of the morning I spent with Miss Cannon, discussing the remarks on her Classification, and explaining the reasons why we had changed “one thing” and questioned “another”. Then Miss Leland was interviewed regarding her selection and measurement of the “Faint Stars For Standards of Stellar Magnitudes”. This was followed by an interview with Miss Mabel Stevens relative to the checking of the identifications of these same stars in the Durchmusterung Catalogue. Before lunch I found time to examine a few southern spectrum plates, and marked a fourth type star and a gaseous nebula, both probably known. Later in the afternoon I noted a few more interesting objects, among then two fourth type stars, one gaseous nebula, and several bright line stars. Some of them may be new. The Director was then able to give some time to reading remarks on Classification, and later to 2.h0 of Vol. XLV. – Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept [6] progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc., has consumed so much of my time during the past few years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested. The Director, however, says that my time employed in the above work is of more value to the Observatory so I have delegated my measures of variables, etc., to Miss Leland and Miss Breslin. I hope, however, to be able soon to finish the measures of the “out of focus” plates, and to get well settled down to my general classification of faint spectra for the New Draper Catalogue. – Today I was afraid I would be unable to order my provisions to carry my household over Sunday as the telephone at Littlefield’s market was out of order. However, I was able to get Norton’s fish market and they kindly took the order and sent a messenger to Littlefield’s. Miss Anderson spent the evening with us. She is so bright and happy, we always enjoy seeing her. We played a game of “India”. Then we went down to the kitchen to make “fudge” but found that the fire had gone out. We were not to be beaten, however, so we got the chafing dish, collected in it the ingredients for one “spree” and carried all upstairs to the sitting room. [7] We played a second game of “India” while the “fudge” was cooking, but as our attention was necessarily divided between the game and the “fudge”, the first was most amusing, while the second was not quite so good as usual. We ate it, however, and promised to give more attention to our cooking next time. Edward went home with Miss Anderson and has just returned. Tomorrow begins a new week, and each one brings us nearer pleasant weather, for which I am truly thankful.

March 4. – This is my day of rest and retirement so far as Observatory work is concerned, but it brings my only opportunities for investigating the condition of household affairs, and I find the day all too short for them. I have to see to all the changes of household linen, etc., and gather together the family wash. Alas! how matter of fact and different from the Sunday morning duties of other officers of the University. – The day being the finest we have had since winter set in, just after dinner I started for Roxbury and spent a most enjoyable afternoon at Mrs. Atherton Brown’s. Alice was full of a three months trip to Vienna which she is going to take with her music teacher and a few young girls about her own age. They are to study music there. I also saw Mrs. Brown and Miss Bessie. [8] They are all so good to me, and so much interested in my work. From there, I went on to the Mt Monadnock to call on Mrs. Hill, and my sweet little friend, Edith Scott. I found Mrs. Hill in excellent spirits. Mr. Hill was not quite himself, and Edith was suffering from a cold which has settled in her eyes. She has been out of school for three days and looks very frail. Her father was on from New York so I was fortunate in seeing him, as I had lost is address and had been unable to acknowledge the beautiful volume of Scottish poems he sent me at Christmas. He also is going over to the other side this summer. I wish Mrs. Hill would make one of our party going down to see the total eclipse. – I reached home at half past eight o’clock and found Miss Christopherson patiently waiting. She comes every Sunday evening at eight o’clock to rub my right arm and keep it in condition so that I can carry on my work. Last fall, Dr. Smith was afraid that I might lose the use of my arm for some time, but it is holding its own very well.

March 5. – Observatory from 9h20m to 6h00m. Read and criticized remarks on Professor Wendell’s tables of observations of variable stars, now being printed by the College printer. Wrote letters. Discussed notes on some observations of stars in R.A. 2h (Vol. XLV), with Miss Cushman, [9] and gave instructions regarding the final work to be done on the general table to render it entirely ready for the printer. Saw Mr. King, and got from him four chart plates take[n] on Saturday evening for one of the missing minor planets. Examined the plates and found on them an object showing motion. Mr. King did not give me the name of the object for which the plates had been taken and the record books had been returned to the laboratory. However, Miss M. Stevens and I read up, independently, the position of the object for 1855. Just as we finished this, the Director came over and we found that the object found was Fortunata, one of the best known of the asteroids. Two of the photographs covered the region of three other asteroids but in a second examination I failed to find then. The remainder of the afternoon was devoted mainly to miss Cannon’s “remarks”. This takes more time and concentration of thought than any manuscript I have worked on since we put Miss Maury’s Volume (XXVIIIpt 1) through the printer’s hands. If one could only go on and on with original work, looking for new stars, variables, classifying spectra and studying their peculiarities and changes, life would be a most beautiful dream; but you come down to its realities when you have to put all that is most interesting to you aside, in order to use most of your available time preparing the work [10] of others for publication. However, “Whatsoever thou puttest thy hand to, do it well”. I am more than contented to have such excellent opportunities for work in so many directions, and proud to be considered of any assistance to such a thoroughly capable Scientific man as our Director.

March 6, 1900. Another full day at the Observatory, 9h00m to 6h05m. The early mail brought a letter from Hallie Donaghe, written in behalf of Gertrude Buckmann (Wolffe) who is having great trouble with her eyes. They require me out in Colorado Springs to make the trio complete. – On reaching the Observatory I had a talk with Professor Bailey about building, and the possibility of getting the Cushman lot, which adjoins the Observatory grounds, and cutting it up into eight or ten house lots. Later, the Director joined us and seemed interested in the plan. – Wrote several letters. – Discussed work with Miss Cushman, looked up several details of her work and started some tables. Revised “remarks” with Miss Cannon and discussed with her some points, relating to her work about which she was doubtful. Examined with the Director several of the constants for the reduction of Professor Bailey’s southern photometric work and disposed of the large residuals, or discordant observations involved. I continued the examination of plates taken on Saturday and found the asteroids Urania and Fides.

[11] Revised 3h and 4h of volume XLV, and checked “remarks”. On reaching home, found a letter from Captain Adams. The “Minia” goes to London this summer as usual. He says he has saved 75¢ towards the trip to the Paris Exposition, so there will be no difficulty about his getting there on account of lack of funds. Alice Brown sent me a note, enclosing her check for $4.00 for four doylies she purchased in aid of the Cuban women. I sold two more at the Observatory today. – Neyle went home to dinner, and came up later with his brother Osro, who helped him to carry home some of his belongings. We miss him very much. I have moved back into my own room, having been a wanderer for six weeks.

March 7. – Reached the Observatory at 9h00m and remained until 5h45m. Examined and assigned a quality to some of the plates just received from the laboratory. Looked over the Paris charts of the Moon, and several other things with Mr. Winkley. Discussed with the Director and Professor Bailey the form of tables for publication of the observations of Professor Bailey’s variable stars in clusters. Later, went over with Mr. Bailey the work on the reductions and the final values to be entered in the tables of variables in ω Centauri. Then described the work to Miss M. Gill and started her on it. At 1.30 decided to have lunch and got Miss Cannon interested. While waiting for water to boil on gas stove in [12] the dark room, I was surprised to find Miss H. Stevens suffering from a fit of hysteria in the next room. This is the second attack she has had here within eight days. Last Tuesday she was quite ill and I had to send her home in a carriage. After lunch went over some work with Miss Leland. At three o’clock a meeting of the Observatory Magazine Club was held in the reception room here. Everything went well, and everybody seemed to enjoy the meeting. It adjourned at about 4.30. This left some time for photometric work, and the Director and I were able to go through 5h of Vol. XLV, and the remarks. – On reaching home I found that Miss Cannon and Edward had already started cooking operations, this being my maid’s “afternoon out”. We got dinner ready, on the table, and disposed of, as fast as we could. Then we had a siege clearing up dishes, washing kettles, and putting all away. Miss Cannon started for the Observatory, while Edward and I finished up the “odds and ends”. Then I trimmed my 10¢ felt “army” hat and went down to call on Mrs. Bailey and Miss Anderson. We discussed building plans, &c, and Edward called for me at nine o’clock.

March 8. Another day at the Observatory from 9h00m to 6h00m, although I had planned to go to Boston sometime during the afternoon to hunt up new games for Saturday evening. – A day full to [13] overflowing with odds and ends of work to be finished or investigated. Still more notes on Vol. XLV, 0h0m to 6h0m revised (I hope, for the last time), and that part of the table and the remarks relating thereto, assumed to be in final form for the printer. The remarks, however, will have to be rewritten and read once more, (without comparison with the table, however,) before they go to Mr. Williams. – Examined two sets of photographs for suspected variables and confirmed variation in both instances. The stars are -13° 530, and -8°.   Measured two “out of focus” plates in Zone +50°, Miss Woods recording. Determined rate of speed for these observations, 65 comparisons of photographic images being made with a wedge of shade glass and scale readings given by the observer in 11 minutes. Two interruptions were included in this time, Miss Wells, and also Miss Cushman finding it necessary to ask some questions regarding their work. Towards the end of the afternoon the Director was able to give his attention to some letters. – On reaching home it seemed good to find Mary in the kitchen and dinner ready to be placed on the table. – In the evening, Miss Cannon went over to observe variables, Mr. Garrett came to study with Edward, and Neyle came to spend an hour and tell me how much he enjoyed “The Firm of Girdlestone” at the Castle [14] Square Theatre this afternoon. I feel as if a bad cold or the grippe had got me in its clutches, but hope to be able to shake it off tomorrow. – I finished my evening by writing a long letter to Gertrude Buckmann.

March 9. – Reached the Observatory at 9h05m, and had some time for work with Miss Cannon before the Director came over. Then followed the usual morning’s work on correspondence, proof of Mr. Wendell’s Volume, and another discussion with Professor Bailey regarding the form of publication of his variable stars in clusters. Asked permission to go to Boston in the afternoon but as the Director felt that it would be a more economical arrangement of time for me to go during the forenoon and while he was occupied with work outside my department, I went at 11h0m, and returned at 3h15m. My time in Boston was fully occupied in paying bills and ordering household supplies. – During the past three weeks I have asked Miss Woods repeatedly regarding work on the “out of focus” plates, and each time have been assured that the regions required for measurement have been satisfactorily photographed. On my return from the city I find that she has notified the Director of one or more incomplete regions. Just how she has overlooked them, or omitted to report them to me when I enquired again this morning, I cannot [15] quite understand, since she knew that the instrument was to be shipped to Peru, at once, for work on the southern stars. – Worked on Miss Cannons “remarks” until six o’clock. – After dinner, started to prepare some sweets for my young friends who come in on Saturday evening. Stoned 2 lbs. of dates, and stuffed them with roasted peanuts. Set the boys (Edward, Neyle and Osro) to making fudge, and salting peanuts, while Miss Cannon made some creamed walnuts. –

March 10. – Observatory from 9h05m to 4h45m. Final notes on Vol. XLV, 0h to 6h, relating to variable stars, suspected variables, &c. Also several notes regarding different forms of expressing the same remark. The work on suspected variables involved their examination on a number of photographs for confirmation of variation, and this work I continued with Miss Leland some having already been done. Then I did some work with Miss Woods on “out of focus” plates, and later with Miss M. Stevens on the southern meridian photometry. Then went over the latter work with the Director, adopting constants, and entering and discussing atmospheric absorptions. We found that in the earlier part of the year, when two series of observations were taken on the same date, (one early in the evening, the other in the morning) the value of the constant was smaller in [16] the evening than in the morning, while towards the last part of the year the value of the constant was greater in the evening than in the morning, thus seeming to indicate some change due to the season of the year. Mr. Bailey, when asked, said he had noticed some such effect in determining provisional constants used in Peru, but had been unable to account for it. We were able to read through a few more pages of Miss Cannon’s “remarks” before the Director left at three o’clock. I then gave some time to Miss Wood’s work. Later, gave some time to Mr. Bailey on the work on the magnitude of his variables. Then returned to Miss Woods and “out of focus“ plates. – After reaching home I planned half an hours rest before dressing for dinner and our Saturday evening “at home”. That half hour, however, had to be given to Miss Jeanette Bailey, who came to enquire about work on the Observatory. She made application some time ago and is very anxious to have something to do there. She will even make any arrangement for one or two hours work, as her services might be required, and even offers to begin such work and continue it for sometime without remuneration. I have decided to talk with the Director about her, but think that while it might prove very convenient to have such an assistant available at short notice, it would not be good policy for the [17] Observatory to place itself under obligations to such an assistant for services rendered gratis. In similar cases I have heard reference made to the amount of time given to the Institution in this way, while the work done in some instances (not all) has been anything but satisfactory. The work of Miss Leavitt and the early work of Miss Cannon must have especial mention as exception to the above remark. – Miss Trueblood took dinner with us. Later came the Misses Bailey, Messrs. Osro and Neyle Fish, Mr. Garett, Mr. & Mrs. Coolidge J. Roberts, Professor & Mrs. Bailey with Irving and Miss Anderson, and Miss Cannon’s cousin Adelaide Jump with Mr. Carrick (a senior in the University). We divided into parties and played crokinole, cue ring, and jackstraws at different tables, the young people changing places occasionally. Mr. & Mrs. Roberts got comfortably settled at a game of jackstraws with Mr. & Mrs. Bailey. All having been in South America, and not having met before, they had a good opportunity for a pleasant conversation. Later in the evening the Misses Bailey sang for us. Then we had a chafing dish spree, creamed oysters, hot cocoa, cakes and sweets. – When our guests had one, Miss Cannon, Miss Trueblood and I talked eclipse &c. until after one o’clock when sheer exhaustion forced us to seek rest.

[18] March 11. After breakfast, Miss Trueblood started for Roxbury where she hoped to be in time to hear her uncle preach. Then I had the usual round of Sunday (my only day at home) household affairs to attend to. Then Miss Cannon and I settled down for some rest and a revision of the work and events of the week, and of the news (?) contained in the Sunday Herald. Edward had gone to Sunday School. – The afternoon was spent in trying to rest and keep warm. My niece, Mina Davidson, came and remained to tea. At 8 o’clock Miss Christopherson came to massage my hand and arm. –

March 12. Observatory 9h30m to 3h45m. During the morning’s work on correspondence &c. I had some conversation with the Director regarding women’s salaries. He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand. If he would only take some step to find out how much he is mistaken in regard to this he would learn a few facts that would open his eyes and set him thinking. Sometimes I feel tempted to give up and let him try someone else, or some of the men to do my work, in order to have him find out what [19] he is getting for $1500. a year from me, compared with $2500 from some of the other assistants. Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts. And this is considered an enlightened age! I cannot make my salary meet my present expenses with Edward in the Institute, and still another year there ahead of him. The Director expects me to work from 9 AM until 6 PM., although my time called for is 7 hours a day, and I feel almost on the verge of breaking down. There is a great pressure of work certainly, but why throw so much of it on me, and pay me in such small proportion to the others, who come and go, and take things easy? The day was occupied in the usual work. – Miss Cannon and I took the four o’clock car in town to the College Club reception. There we met a number of people we knew. Among others Miss Coes. How does she find time to go everywhere? Miss Stickney, Edward’s old school teacher was there. She was very much interested in hearing about him and wants to come up some time to see the Observatory. – After dinner we passed a quiet evening at home.

March 13. – At breakfast this morning Edward informed us that Dr. Walker and the other Professors in the Chemistry Department at the Inst. [20] were coming out in the evening to see the Observatory. My day there was from 9h0m to 6h0m, as usual, and with the same round of work – Writing letters, examining and correcting proof, preparing material for printing,  advising, discussing work, and making a few measurements. There is no end to the work on hand in the photographic and photometric departments. After dinner I went back to the Observatory, and after seeing the commotion caused by calling out the City Fire Dept. for a blaze in a chimney in the Dixwell house, I settled myself in the Astrophotographic building to await the arrival of Edward and his friends. They came at about 8h30m, and I showed them some of the photographs. The Director came over, took them all through the building, told them about the photographic work and my connection with it. He then took them to the Main building and showed them the transparencies, which are mostly duplicates of those sent to Paris. Then I took them to Mr. King, who kindly had volunteered to show the photographic instruments. Soon I took the ladies up to the 6-inch telescope and Miss Cannon showed them the Pleiades and several interesting clusters, in the telescope.

March 14 to March 20. My daily duties at the Observatory exhausted all my strength each day [21] and at night I was unable to make any record of the day’s work and events.

March 21. – Edward unable to go to Boston and in need of a doctor. On reaching the Observatory, telephone to Dr. Bailey to call and see Edward. Tried to work as usual, but at 3h30m had to give up and sent for a carriage to take me home. Also, sent for Dr. Bailey. He came in the evening and told me we had the grippe.

March 22 to 31. By the time Dr. Bailey arrived we had a third patient for him. Mary had the same sickness. Only Miss Cannon remained well, so we were left without anyone to do anything for us. Dr. Bailey found a woman who came in the morning, made beef tea &c., and looked after us for ten days. On March 24 Edward was able to go to the Inst. for an hour. On March 26 I was still unable to sit up, but Mary was able to get up and be taken home. On March 25, 26, and 27, I was able to ride to the Observatory and attend to the work in my department in a general way. I found the Director confined to the house and suffering from an attack of grippe. On March 28 I was able to walk over to the Observatory, and in the afternoon I went to Boston. March 29 and 30 were spent in the usual way at the Observatory.

[22] March 31. Sunday at home and with some leisure time to review the events of the past few weeks. All through the winter I have been fighting colds and overworking, and I do not wonder that at-last I had to give up. During the last half of the month when I was unable to write anything in the evening I thought it was due to laziness, which with me would be something heretofore unknown. Now I can see how hard a fight the grippe and I had before it overcame me. Even now I feel that it will be some time before I get back to my long days of steady work and strain.

Williamina P. Fleming

273 Upland Road

Cambridge, April 15, 1900.


I find that on March 12 I had written at considerable length regarding my salary. I do not intend this to reflect on the Director’s judgment, but feel that it is due to his lack of knowledge regarding the salaries received by women in responsible positions elsewhere. I am told that my services are very valuable to the Observatory, but when I compare the compensation with that received by women elsewhere, I feel that my work cannot be of much account.

Williamina P. Fleming

April 18, 1900

See also:

·  Every Star Speaks for Itself: Williamina Fleming and the Work of the Harvard College Observatory

·  Williamina  Paton Stevens Fleming Bibliography