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Beyond Vassar

By charter, the New York State Legislature authorized the Ingham sisters’ Le Roy Female Seminary to become Ingham Collegiate Institute. The institute consisted of a normal school, a seminary and a collegiate department, empowered to appoint professors and teachers and to award diplomas. Guided by a 24-member board of trustees—half Presbyterian clergy and half layman, generally of the same denomination—the collegiate institute offered three years, called the Junior, Middle and Senior years, of three terms each and a curriculum which reached trigonometry in mathematics and elements of criticism in literature, and which included a term each of botany, natural philosophy, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, chemistry, electricity, and technology.

The institute was granted a charter as Ingham University in 1857—the first full university charter to a female college—and it averaged 17 graduates each year until it closed, due to lack of funds, in 1892. The Synod of Genesee had withdrawn its support in 1883.

Roger L. Wing, “Requiem for a Pioneer of Women’s Higher Education,” History of Higher Education Annual, 1991

Among the institution’s some 6,000 alumnae was Sarah Frances Whiting, Wellesley College’s first professor of physics, who founded the college’s departments of physics and astronomy and helped establish its Whitin Observatory, of which she was the first director.

Matthew Vassar, President of the Poughkeepsie Lyceum of Literature, Science and the Mechanic Arts, an important educational force in the city, opened the current course of lectures with a brief address. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the scheduled speakers.

Beyond Vassar

Elmira Collegiate Seminary, originally chartered in 1852 as Auburn Female University, received a new charter from the State of New York after its founding committee failed to find the promised funding in Auburn, NY, and accepted an offer of $5,000 from an Elmira resident, Simeon Benjamin. The donation required that the new institution be under the control of the Presbyterian Synod of Geneva.

Matthew Vassar’s niece, Lydia Booth, who Matthew Vassar said “more than any other, and more than all others” accounted for his decision to found Vassar College, died suddenly, at the age of 51. The stepdaughter of Vassar’s sister Maria, Lydia Booth opened the Poughkeepsie Female Seminary in 1837 and later, with her uncle’s help, established Cottage Hill Seminary on Garden Street in Poughkeepsie. Although her death occurred while her uncle was still deciding among several philanthropic possibilities, her influence caused Vassar’s eminent Professor of History Lucy Maynard Salmon to call her “the real founder of Vassar College.”

As his college was becoming a reality, the Founder acknowledged his debt to his niece in an address to the trustees on February 23, 1864, saying:

“It is due to truth to say that my great interest on the subject of female education was awakened not less than twenty years ago by an intimate female friend and relative, now deceased, who conducted a seminary of long standing and character in this city . . . It was this fact, more than any other, and more than all others, that awakened me early to the possibility and necessity of an institution like the one we now propose.”

Milo P. Jewett, an educator from Marion, Alabama, purchased College Hill Seminary from Matthew Vassar and reopened the school for girls founded by Lydia Booth. In an unpublished manuscript, “Origin of Vassar College,” Jewett related how he suggested the idea of a college for women to the Founder:

“… If you will establish a real College for girls and endow it, you will build a monument for yourself more lasting than the Pyramids; you will perpetuate your name to the latest generations; it will be the pride and joy of Po‘keepsie, an honor to the state and a blessing to the world…and then and there Vassar College was born.”

Under a New York State charter, Elmira Collegiate Institute became Elmira Female College, and although the college building was unfinished and the institution lacked a president, the first students enrolled the following October.

“Elmira is the oldest existing women’s college in the United States which succeeded in attaining standards in a fair degree comparable with men’s colleges at the very beginning of her career. Vassar, ten years thereafter, likewise attained fairly comparable standards and was the first women’s college that was adequately endowed.”

Thomas Woody, A History of Women’s Education in the United States

“To any one familiar with the circumstances it does not admit of discussion that in Vassar we have the legitimate parent of all future colleges for women which were to be founded in such rapid succession in the next period. It is true that in 1855 the Presbyterian synod opened Elmira college in Elmira, New York, but it had practically no endowment and scarcely any college students. Even before 1855 two famous female seminaries were founded which did much to create a standard for the education of girls. In 1821 Mrs. Emma Willard opened at Troy a seminary for girls, known as the Troy female seminary, still existing under the name of the Emma Willard school. In 1837 Mary Lyon opened in the beautiful valley of the Connecticut Mt. Holyoke seminary, where girls were educated so cheaply that it was almost a free school. This institution has had a great influence in the higher education of women; it became in 1893 Mt. Holyoke college. These seminaries are often claimed as the first women’s colleges, but their curriculum of study proves conclusively that they had no thought whatever of giving women a collegiate education, whereas, the deliberations of the board of trustees whom Mr. Vassar associated with himself show clearly that it was expressly realized that here for the first time was being created a woman’s college as distinct from the seminary or academy.”

M. Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr College, “Education of Women,” in Nicholas Murray Butler, ed., Education in the United States: a series of monographs

While preparing his final drawings, Thomas Alexander Tefft, a prominent American architect who five years earlier had begun preliminary planning for Matthew Vassar’s college, died in Florence, Italy. His successor, James Renwick, Jr, followed Teffts’s original plan to house the entire college in a single building.

Renwick’s Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, DC, had been completed in 1852, and his design for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was currently under construction.

The Years