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June 12, 1890

Adding a day to the annual commencement week, the College celebrated its 25th year of academic life. A commemorative volume, Addresses at the Celebration of the Completion of the Twenty-Fifth Academic Year, preserved the events and addresses that “delegates from many universities and colleges, large numbers of former students and hundreds of other guests” assembled to witness. The festivities concluded on Thursday, June 12.

In his “Address of Welcome,” President Taylor said, “Twenty-five years in the life of an institution is but infancy; but this twenty-five years in the great movement of woman’s education marks an era in all educational history. That which many of our mothers and fathers had longed to see, and never saw; that which good men and women had tried to realize in the face of unbelief and an unprepared world, was at last made possible by a woman’s word and Matthew Vassar’s splendid gift.” Taylor’s reference, presumably, was to Vassar’s niece, Lydia Booth.

Benson J. Lossing, a founding trustee of the College, recounted the “Genesis of Vassar College” in his “Historical Address,” giving towards the end, a vivid last description of his friend, the Founder:

“At the time of Mr. Vassar’s departure he was seventy-six years of age. In person, his stature was a little less than medium height. He was well proportioned and compactly built. His complexion was fair, with lingerings of the ruddiness of good health on his cheeks. The brown hair of his earlier years was plentifully mingled with the hoary tokens of age. His dark gray eyes beamed with the lustre of vigorous middle life and the radiance of unextinguishable good humor. His nose was of the Roman type and firmly set, and the general expression of his face was exceedingly pleasant to both friends and strangers, for in his countenance whether in action or repose, was ever seen the perpetual sunshine of a gentle, cheerful nature.”

After the orchestra of the German Opera Company of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and a chorus of 80 students, directed by Frederick Ritter, performed the solo and chorus from Mendelsohn’s Second Symphony, “The Hymn of Praise,” George William Curtis, the newly appointed Chancellor of the University of the State of New York, gave the main address. Recounting the important role of the Hudson Valley and of the river itself in “the experiment of American independence” and invoking the influences of Cooper and Irving on the development of an American literature, Curtis pointed to the progressive impulses in several social spheres that influenced and matured Matthew Vassar’s “vague desire and tentative groping toward a complete opportunity for the equal higher education of women.”

Curtis traced the growth of educational innovation outward from Emma Willard in Troy to Mary Lyon in Holyoke and Catherine Beecher in Hartford, Oberlin in 1834, and Horace Mann in 1853 at Antioch, and he revealed to his auditors “Lombard University, in Illinois…chartered with absolute equality of its privileges between the sexes,” in 1852. He then turned south to inspect Georgia Female College and Mary Sharp College in Tennessee, and came north again to Elmira Female College, which “graduated its first class in 1859.”

All these precedents, Curtis assured his audience, were adduced not to discuss “priority” but “as indications of a changing public sentiment.” Quickly reviewing the history of such sentiments about women and learning—going back to the time of Charles II in England—Curtis returned, again, to New York, New England, and the nineteenth century. His peroration grouped Matthew Vassar’s untutored sagacity with that of Ezra Cornell and found in Vassar’s accomplishment the realization of Margaret Fuller’s “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” “…she seems to me still the figure of Woman in the nineteenth century, which was the title of her best known paper.

“Daughters of Vassar, such is the woman, I doubt not, whom Matthew Vassar vaguely foresaw when his generous heart inspired him to his noble task. It is the woman that as a lofty ideal presides over the studious hours and quite meditations of these halls. It is the woman of the nineteenth century whom the other centuries foretold. The old times, indeed, were good, but the new times are better. …in the enlightened American daughter, wife, and mother, in the free American home, we find the fairest flower and the highest promise of American civilization.”

The program concluded with a performance by the chorus and orchestra, under Dr. Ritter’s direction, of a cantata he had composed for the occasion on the text of Psalm IX: “I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart.”

The Years