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Matthew Vassar bought land for his college, 200 acres at the site of a former fairgrounds, two miles east of Poughkeepsie.

Beyond Vassar

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in America.

Beyond Vassar

Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Six weeks later South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed within two months by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

Matthew Vassar wrote to Susan B. Anthony:

“Dear Madam, In reply to your note of yesterday inquiring whether the report is true that I had made an appropriation $400,000—to found a College for girls, in all respects equal to Harvard and Yale I answer yes, and the grounds for its location purchased, the contract for the erection of the buildings awarded, and the work will be commenced early the ensuing Spring. Yours very Respectully, M. Vassar.”

The New York State Legislature passed “An Act to Incorporate Vassar Female College,” with the “object and purpose” of “the education of young women in literature, science, and the arts.” The charter listed as trustees: Matthew Vassar, Ira Harris, William Kelly, James Harper, Martin B. Anderson, John Thompson, Edward Lathrop, Charles W. Swift, E.L. Magoon, S.M. Buckingham, Milo P. Jewett, Nathan Bishop, Matthew Vassar, Jr., Benson J. Lossing, E.G.Robinson, Samuel F.B. Morse, S.S. Constant, John Guy Vassar, William Hague, Rufus Babcock, Cornelius Dubois, John H. Raymond, Morgan L. Smith, Cyrus Swan, George W. Sterling, George T. Pierce, Smith Sheldon, Joseph C. Doughty and A.L. Allen.

Beyond Vassar

The Confederate States of America was formed, with Jefferson Davis as its president.

Beyond Vassar

On a pre-inaugural tour from Niagara Falls to New York City, Abraham Lincoln told the people of Poughkeepsie the American people were “a great, and intelligent and a happy people.” Conceding that the frequent cheers of affirmation were meant not for himself but for “the man who at this time humbly, but earnestly, represents the majesty of the nation,” the President-elect declared his warm reception “indicates an earnest desire on the part of the whole people, without regard to political differences, to save—not the country, for the country will save itself—but the institutions of the country—those institutions under which, in the last three-quarters of a century, we have grown to a great, and intelligent and a happy people—the greatest, the most intelligent and the happiest people in the world.”

—Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works, Comprising His Speeches, Letters, State Papers and Miscellaneous Writings, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, eds.

The first meeting of the Board of Trustees of Vassar Female College was held at the Hotel Gregory in Poughkeepsie. Milo P. Jewett was elected president. Dr. Jewett, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Andover Theological Seminary, was Professor at Marietta Collegiate Institute in Ohio, 1833–38. In 1838 he established Judson Female Institute at Marion, Ala. He came to Poughkeepsie in 1855 to reopen the school founded by Lydia Booth.

At this meeting, Matthew Vassar presented to the newly organized board of trustees a small tin box containing the funds appropriated for the founding of the college, in the form of securities amounting to $408,000, and a deed of conveyance for two hundred acres for the college site and farm.

“It occurred to me, that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.

It is my hope to be the instrument in the hands of Providence, of founding and perpetuating an institution which shall accomplish for young women what our colleges are accomplishing for young men.”

Matthew Vassar, Communications to the Trustees of Vassar College by its Founder, February 26,1861
Beyond Vassar

Lincoln was inaugurated as 16th President of the United States of America.

Fort Sumter was fired upon. In his communication to the trustees on April 13, 1865, Matthew Vassar noted, “Just four years ago tomorrow, we staked out the ground for the foundation of our College, a day which was made singularly memorable by the fall of Fort Sumter.”

Matthew Vassar dug the first spadeful of dirt for Main Building on the site of a former racetrack, the land purchased in 1860. James Renwick, Jr. was the architect and William Harloe the builder.

“Mr. Vassar in the presence of Executive Committee, Mr. Harloe, and a few other spectators removed the first spadeful of soil from the NE corner of the proposed building…. Remarks were made by Mr. Vassar and the Reverend Doctor Howard Malcom of Philadelphia and the latter invoked the Divine blessing. A single furrow was then plowed about the outlines of the entire structure and the work left to the builder.”

Trustee executive committee minutes, June 24, 1861.

A prominent Baptist minister and missionary, Howard Malcom was the former president of The University at Lewisburg in Pennsylvania—subsequently Bucknell University. He served as president of Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia from 1874 until his death in 1879. William Harloe’s eventual bankruptcy obliged Matthew Vassar to donate an additional $75,000 to complete the building.

The prominent portrait painter Charles Loring Elliott was paid $1,404 for a commissioned full-length portrait of Matthew Vassar, now in Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The sum included $1,200 for the portrait, $200 for a walnut frame and $4 for insurance.

Vassar noted in his diary a few days later:

“Tuesday February 25, 1862, Meeting Trustees of V. Female College at Gregory House. After Meeting the Members came to my home and examined Elliotts Picture.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar.

Milo P. Jewett sailed for Europe to study the structures and curricula of educational institutions. He was absent eight months, visiting schools, libraries and museums in Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Jewett’s report, Vassar Female College: The President’s Visit to Europe (1863) was circulated to the 28 founding trustees.

Beyond Vassar

The Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, left 26,000 men dead, wounded or missing.

Beyond Vassar

Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing as of January 1863 all slaves in areas still in rebellion against the United States.

“I am very happy to learn that you are taking so much interest in V. F. College Enterprize by watching its progress &c. This day completes the roofing, our Edifice is now enclosed from Storms & Winds.”

Matthew Vassar to Maria Mitchell, Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union, and his wife were guests of Augustus L. Allen of Poughkeepsie and called on Matthew Vassar. They also visited the College site to see Main Building under construction. Mr. Allen was a charter trustee of the College.

Beyond Vassar

President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in territories held by Confederates.

“In this city…after a lingering illness, which she bore with great meekness and fortitude, Catharine, wife of M. Vassar, aged 73 years.”

Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle

Not quite 21 years old but already feeling successful in his leadership of the family business, Matthew Vassar married Catharine Valentine, a resident of Fishkill, on March 7, 1813. The young couple “hired part of a dwelling at the rate of forty dollars a year, payable in advance,” Vassar’s friend and biography Benson Lossing recorded, “which his father thought was a very extravagant beginning; and the whole outfit of the young couple for housekeeping did not exceed, in cost, one hundred fifty dollars. Yet it was a genteel display of home comforts, for the time. Neatness and industry characterized his chosen helpmate, and their humble dwelling-place had an air of elegance which more spacious mansions and more costly furnishings do not always present. With mutual interests they worked lovingly together.”

Matthew Vassar’s companion on his tour of England and the Continent in 1845—along with his secretary, Cyrus Swan—Mrs. Vassar nonetheless preferred to stay out of the public eye. She took part in neither Poughkeepsie society nor her husband’s subsequent and frequent travels. Described as a “home-body,” she seems also to have shown little interest in her husband’s plans for founding a College for women in Poughkeepsie. She was apparently an invalid for several years before her death.

The Vassars had no children.

Beyond Vassar

The tide of the Civil War turned in favor of the Union, as the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.

Beyond Vassar

Dedicating the battlefield at Gettysburg as a National Cemetery, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

The Sanitary Fair was held at Poughkeepsie in an unoccupied coach factory loaned by Matthew Vassar. Mr. Vassar was among those exhibiting plants and cut flowers.

Milo P. Jewett resigned as President of Vassar following a difference of opinion with the Founder about when the college should open.  Jewett wanted to begin as soon as the physical plant was ready, while Vassar insisted on waiting for the end of war, both so that his experiment could start in as calm and favorable a public climate as possible and so that the unruly financial fluctuations caused by the war could subside.

 A letter sent by Jewett to several trustees, in which he described the Founder as “vacillating and growing daily more childish and fickle,” was brought to Matthew Vassar’s attention. He declined to have any further dealings with Jewett and demanded his resignation. 

Rev. John H. Raymond, a charter trustee who had taught at the Hamilton Theological Institute and the University of Rochester before his appointment as president of the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, accepted the presidency of Vassar Female College at a salary of $4,000 per annum.

Matthew Vassar wrote to the Rev. Elias L. Magoon, a charter trustee, confiming his purchase of Magoon’s art collection as the nucleus for Vassar’s art gallery:

“I am,” he wrote, “to have from you your entire collection as it is—complete—Art itself & all matters relating to art—descriptive historic & otherwise just as it is in your house as I regard all such matter printed & otherwise as making the completeness of your collection for my purposes which are illustrative & educational. We need no express contract—I rely upon you as a christian man.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar.

This collection, made by Magoon in England and purchased for $20,000, consisted of over 400 oils and water-colors by contemporary artists, American and English, including four original water-colors by Turner. The pictures were accompanied by a library of nearly 1,000 volumes.

From its outset, in 1861, Matthew Vassar had taken, as Vassar’s founding president, John Raymond, later observed, “the leading and responsible part in the direction” of the construction of Main Building. Delays—including the bankruptcy of the builder, William Harloe—plagued project, and the public, curious to see the immense new building where Vassar’s “experiment” would take place, frequented the site. As the opening of the College drew near, Vassar, as chairman of the Executive Committee, signed an order banning visitors from the College’s building and grounds “in consequence of frequent interruptions to the workmen.”

Matthew Vassar noted in his diary:

“Very Rainy Day—Matthew gone to N Y on ‘Williamsburg’ Lot business and partly on College sale of Bonds. ‘Swan’ in office this morning Took ’Harloe’ Contract for Building Gate-Lodge expect Renwick today….

“Returns from Every Union State of the Election which gives Lincoln an overwhelming Majority. The whole passed off, very Quietly.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

The Observatory was completed. Charles S. Farrar, professor of chemistry and physics at Elmira Female College, who oversaw its design and construction, subsequently became Vassar’s first professor of mathematics, chemistry and physics. Built by William Harloe, the building was 80 by 50 feet with an octagonal center 27 feet in diameter.

Beyond Vassar

Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting slavery. The amendment was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865.

Beyond Vassar

General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Matthew Vassar recorded in his diary:

“Awful intellingence this Morning, Lincoln & Seward Assasinated  Both dead, other members of Sewards family Injured by the Assassins—The whole Country in Sadness and Mourning—our City draped in Mourning—Such is the sensibility & feeling but few persons are seen in the Streets….”

Wednesday, April 19, 1865  “A Memorial Day—A day never to be forgotten, people sad, stores all closed, the whole City draped in Deep Mourning. Largest Procession of Citizens ever seen in Po. at 2 Ock P M. Church services held in the Morning . Immense Attendance—Dr. Raymond dined with us.”    

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar
Beyond Vassar

“Cut magnolia to Decorate Prest. Lincoln—Coffin at R.R. Depo this Evening.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

Matthew Vassar noted in his diary:

“Mem. of College matters yet to attended to:..Gass light-burners—Time-pieces—Bells or Gongs, Cabinetts of Insects—Ice House. Span College Carriage Horses & Vehicle or Coach—Floors Oiled—Beds&bedding—Gass Light in ‘Observatory’—Class Books for College. Chemical department fitted up—Unfinished Masonry Halls &c. Steps front Entrance—Building for Gynestic or Riding School. Kitchen Department—Crockery and Cooking Utensils etc. &c. &c. Gass House Roof strengthened &c. Iron Railing—Gallery of Chapel—Cushions. Ditto in Art Gallery. Unfinished Roads. Painting. Coal. Lighting Rods. Stone steps to tours. Water Hoses Reals & Hoses. Equipment for Riding School &c &c &c.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

Vassar’s first Library, located on the third floor of Main Building, directly opposite the chapel, opened for student use. The Library was thirty by thirty-five feet in area, and although reports vary, the collection probably contained some 2,400 volumes.

President John Raymond wrote to his wife and family, still at their home in Brooklyn. The first students were all in residence.

“I am very tired, and have to preach my first sermon tomorrow. So you will not expect much of a letter.

“It seems like a dream, the sudden transmutation of this great lumbering pile of brick and mortar, which hung on my spirit like a mountainous millstone, into a palace of light and life. Last evening, about nine o’clock, I got out for the first time after dark, walked quietly down the front avenue to the gate-lodge under the dim light of the stars, and then turned to look at the College. It was illuminated from end to end. I then returned and walked around the whole. On every side it sparkled like a diamond…. The blinds were generally open, and many of the windows; and everywhere fair young forms were moving around, and merry voices were heard in conversation and song. At the rear the pianos were going, and you would have thought the building had been inhabited for years instead of hours.”

John Howard Raymond, Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond, Edited by his Eldest Daughter

Vassar Female College opened with 353 students—including a Civil War widow—between the ages of 15 and 24. The annual fee for tuition and residence was $350. The faculty numbered 30: ten professors, of whom two were women, and 20 women as assistant teachers. John H. Raymond was president and professor of mental and moral philosophy, and Hannah W. Lyman was lady principal.

The other professors were: William I. Knapp, ancient and modern languages; Charles S. Farrar, mathematics, natural philosophy and chemistry; Sanborn Tenney, natural history, including geology and mineralogy, botany, zoology, and physical geography; Maria Mitchell, astronomy; Alida C. Avery, physiology and hygiene, also resident physician; Henry B. Buckham, rhetoric, belles‑lettres, and the English language; Edward Wiebé, vocal and instrumental music; Henry Van Ingen, painting and drawing.

The extracollegiate departments included the School of Vocal and Instrumental Music and the School of Design. Preparatory courses were offered in addition to the regular curriculum. The College buildings consisted of the Main Building, the Observatory, the Gate House and the Boiler and Gas House.

Speaking in 1927 to Alumnae at reunion, one of the first students and one of the first four to graduate, in 1867, Harriet Warner Bishop recalled the conclusion of the College’s first day as the entire College gathered in the chapel in Main Building.

“I will never forget,” she said, “the expression on Mr. Vassar’s face, as he realized what had come to pass.”

The Miscellany News

Students visited Springside, Matthew Vassar’s country estate. John Guy Vassar, nephew of the Founder and a founding trustee of the College, conducted the tour of the grounds, designed by America’s preeminent landscape architect, the late Andrew Jackson Downing .

The first student organization, a literary society, was founded. The following June, the students wrote: “We all met as strangers, unclassified, and inexperienced in College life. There were no societies, literary, social and athletic…” Professor Henry Buckham agreed to be the society’s president until elections could be held, and President Raymond was elected to lead the group in its first year. “We do not mean to insinuate anything about weakness trying to prop itself up with strength,” the group noted the following year, and by 1868 all administration of the society was in student hands, where it has remained.

At first called Philalethia—for Greek: “truth-loving”—the group arranged lectures, held chapter meetings and presented a festivity in June. In 1890, when someone discovered that “Philalethia” didn’t exist in Greek, the name was changed to the current “Philaletheis.” In time the organization had several “chapters,” each with a distinctive emphasis.

The student paper, The Transcript, reported that chapter meetings were devoted to “essays, poems, debates, selections prose or poetical, either read or recited, papers, music, impromptu speaking, dramatic performances, political news, and gossip varied at the discretion of the President.” By the early 1870s dramatic activities predominated, and this remains the focus of the modern organization.

—Vivian Gurney ’15, “Philaletheis,” The Vassar Miscellany, Vassar 1865-1915, From the Undergraduate Point of View, Fiftieth Anniversary Number

Designed by John. A. Wood, a prolific Poughkeepsie architect, the Calisthenium and Riding Academy, Vassar’s first gymnasium, was completed. Matthew Vassar endorsed physical education as propounded by the early physical educator Dr. Dio Lewis and his colleague, the advocate for female education Catherine Beecher. The college’s 1865 Prospectus declared that “our plan of education. . . must include Anatomy. . . Physiology. . . Hygiene, by which we are taught the laws of health and the art of preserving it.” Accordingly, Lewis’s “calisthenics”—”training calculated to develop the beauty of the human figure, and to promote elegant and graceful movement”—was a required activity for all students.

Instruction in riding was given by Baron Leopold von Seldeneck, who had been a cavalry officer in the Prussian army and had served in the same capacity in the Civil War. The riding academy proved too expensive and was closed in 1872.

After the opening of the Alumnae Gymnasium in 1889, the Calisthenium was used as a museum, an assembly hall and for many years the home of the departments of classics, drama and English. It was renamed Avery Hall in 1931, in honor of Dr. Alida Avery, Vassar’s first professor of physiology and hygiene and its first resident physician.

Avery Hall was razed in 2003 to make way for the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film, but the center’s architect, Cesar Pelli, retained the Calisthenium’s façade and front section, which serve as the entrance and lobby of its main proscenium theater.

The first Vassar College catalogue of courses, for 1865/1866, was published.

The Faculty voted that April 29, Matthew Vassar’s birthday, be “entered on the calendar as a holiday to be annually observed by appropriate commemoration exercises and that it be known as Founder’s Day.” It was further voted that the celebration be on April 30th that year, as the 29th fell on Sunday.

Annie Glidden ’1869 wrote to her brother what is believed to be the first reference to American women playing baseball.

“They are getting up various clubs now for outdoor exercise,” she wrote. “They have a floral society, boat clubs and baseball. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it hugely, I can assure you.”

Annie Glidden ’1869 wrote to her brother what is believed to be the first reference to American women playing baseball.

“They are getting up various clubs now for outdoor exercise,” she wrote. “They have a floral society, boat clubs and baseball. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it hugely, I can assure you.”

Arriving at the college for the first Founder’s Day celebration and escorted by President Raymond, the unsuspecting Matthew Vassar drove under a triumphal archway of evergreens designed by Henry Van Ingen, professor of art. Lines of students on either side of the driveway greeted the Founder. The literary program which followed included an original song, “Our Father and Our Friend,” with music by Professor of Music Edward Wiebé, and words by Julia S. Tutwiler, special student, 1865-66. The celebration was a complete surprise to Matthew Vassar, who is reported to have said to Dr. Raymond “This one event has repaid me for every cent I have spent for the college.”

A student’s letter home noted President Raymond’s announcement that Sunrise Hill was in bounds for “all seniors, juniors, and all over twenty,” adding “[the] last was an important addition as no mortal persons know whether they are in the Freshman or Senior year.”

Her reference was to the impossibility of determining the first group of students’ class years.

“For the first year, no attempt was made to grade the students by any common standard. It would hardly have been possible to do so, so dissimilar had their previous plans of study been. Their individual wants were, therefore considered only; and they were classified in the several departments of instruction separately.”

John Howard Raymond, Vassar College: a college for women, in Poughkeepsie, N. Y.

Matthew Vassar wrote Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and a persistent opponent of “Female” in the name of the college, that the trustees had at last approved the word’s deletion:

“I hasten to inform you that the great agony is over—your long cherished wishes reilised—Woman stands redeemed, at least so far as Vassar College is concerned from the degrading vulgarism in the associated name of ‘female’, that has long and extensively grown up in our society…”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

The Vassariana, the first student publication, appeared, listing the following clubs: the Philalethian Society, the Floral Society, the Laurel Base Ball Club, the Abenakis Base Ball Club and the Light Croquet Club. The four-page newspaper contained also “an account of the inauguration of Founder’s Day, at which Matthew Vassar was present, and editorial comment upon the happenings of that opening year.”

The Vassariana was succeeded in 1867 by The Transcript, an eight-page paper which began with:

“the college song ‘Three Cheers for the Rose and the Grey’:

‘When the daughters of Vassar were toiling

O’er “Morals” and Greek in dismay,

Hope came robed in the colors of morning,

Our banner of rose-hue and grey.’”

[Sung to the tune of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”]

The Transcript was succeeded in 1872 by The Vassar Miscellany.

—Florence Hotchkiss, 1897, “An Unnoticed Record of College History,” The Vassar Miscellany, October, 1896

As President Raymond later observed, for Vassar’s first year, “no attempt was made to grade the students by any common standard. It would hardly have been possible to do so, so dissimilar had their previous plans of study been.” Nonetheless the college observed “closing ceremonies” for the 1865-66 academic year.

A reporter from The New York Times, under the pseudonym “Diabolus,” wrote at length about the new college and “the exercises of the evening…before a large and brilliant assemblage of youth and beauty, wit and worth…. The ‘papers’ were cleverly written and carefully read; the singing was really admirable, and the closing dialogue between Truth, Peace, Discord and a number of angelic friends, was not only instructive, as such matters always are, but likewise entertaining, as they very rarely are.”

Having told her diary on March 27, 1863, of the “glorious emancipation for woman…the Vassar female college that is to be,” 19-year-old Christine Ladd told it of the argument she constructed to convince her family to send her to college.

“I have gained an important point with my grandmother. She says she thinks Auntie ought to send me to Vassar. She objected that at the end of four years I should be too old to get married. I assured her that it would afford me great pleasure to entangle a husband but there was no one [in] the place who would have me or whom I would have and out of this place I was destined never to go, gave her statistics of the great excess of females in New England and proved that as I was decidedly not handsome my chances were very small. Therefore since I could not find a husband to support me I must support myself and to do so I needed an education. Grandma succumbed.”

Christine Ladd, in her diary

A graduate in the Class of 1869, Ladd was, in 1878, among the first women allowed to attend lectures at Johns Hopkins University. She married Johns Hopkins mathematician Fabian Franklin in 1882, and Ladd-Franklin’s invention of the “antilogism” solved a problem in symbolic logic that dated back to Aristotle. Her fascinating career is described in the Vassar Encyclopedia.

The yearly fee for tuition and residence was raised from $350 to $400, where it would remain until 1905. Towards the end of his life, on June 10, 1868, the Founder wrote to President Raymond:

“My maxim or motto is now the same as at the beginning of our enterprise – Do all things Intelecturall and Material the best, and make your prices accordingly… .I go for the best means, cost what they may, & corresponding prices for tuition in return….”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

The feminist writer, lecturer and social reformer Caroline Wells Healey Dall visited Vassar in preparation for her influential book, The College, The Market, and the Court: or Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor, and Law, a collection of her lectures, given over a number of years and published 1867. Although still thinking that the best hope for the education of women might be coeducation, she was very favorably impressed by the college and by the thoroughness with which it had been planned. “Ten Years,” an appendix to her book, surveyed the improvement in women’s education over the preceding decade, devoting nearly ten pages to Vassar. “The art gallery,” she wrote, was “such as no college in the country possesses,” and the “curriculum is such as we find adopted at all colleges, except that far more time is devoted to science than is usual at Yale or Harvard, and room is left for music.”

On this visit, Dall noted, Matthew Vassar asked her “to talk with him about a culinary and household college for the proper training of housewives, which he still wishes to erect.”

Caroline Wells Healy Dall, The College, The Market, and the Court: or Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor, and Law

“I have had the pleasure of hearing a lecture from Mrs. Dall on ‘Sunshine.’ The lecture was not particularly original, but I was pleased with the lady and glad to have seen her.”

Christine Ladd ’1869, in her diary

Preparing the education section of her The College, The Market, and the Court: or Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor and Law (1868) the Boston feminist writer and Unitarian preacher Caroline Wells Healy Dall closely studied Oberlin, Antioch and Vassar, which she visited in October 1866. “It was pleasant,” she reported, “to see four hundred young women of the highest health, the best breeding, of good social standing, and abundant means, blossoming like so many tulips at Vassar,—we must add, also, of good ability, and more than average education; for only good scholars could pass the rigid examination required of those who enter. It was plasant to see that between between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, when society offers its greatest allurements, four hundred wealthy girls could be found, ready to devote themselves in seclusion…to higher things.”

Impressed by Vassar’s Main Building and by the reputation and qualities of the three principle women on the original faculty—Maria Mitchell, Alida Avery and Elizabeth Powell—and of the lady principal, Hannah Lyman, Dall also noted, “besides these women, Vassar employs twenty others, in whom, it would be hard to find a fault.” Dall’s assesment of the founder, with whom she spoke at length, was equally high:

“Could you see him meet the scholars in the grounds, you would think them all his children. I had interviews with the president, trustees, and the teachers; but was most attracted to this noble old man. Matthew Vassar’s “last gift to the college,” she observed, was the exceptionally complete Mineralogical and Geological Cabinet, over 4000 specimins purchased from the eminent collector Henry Augustua Ward and installed by Ward next the the Art Gallery in the top floor of the Main Building— a “magnificent cabinet of stones and rocks.”

“He told me, that he meant to go on endowing the college until he died. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I shall leave nothing for the executors to quarrel about: money will be safe in brick and stone.’” In this particular, Dall’s prediction was only partly correct. Matthew Vassar died at a meeting of the trustees on June 23, 1868. There ensued no quarelling among the executors, but in his will he forgave a $75,000 loan he had provided to complete the college buildings and bequeathed $50,000 for a lecture fund, $50,000 for an auxiliary fund to aid students of superior promise $50,000 for a library, art and cabinet fund and the residue of his estate, amounting to about $125,000, for a repair fund.

Caroline Wells Healy Dall, The College, The Market, and the Court: or Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor, and Law

In a letter to President Raymond, the Founder wrote:

“…Please to give my best regards to our dear young Ladies and Teachers, and say to them, that, I deeply regret that my health will not permit my joining them today, that I wanted to say to them, that the ‘Vassar College’ is now thiers, thiers to elevate, thiers to beautify, thiers to honor, and thiers to adorn, by its fruits, and I trust God in his Providence will bless, prosper and sustain it to the glory of his name, and to the praise and admiration of the world, and I hope therefore that all voices and hearts will arise and join in one glorious anthem and Sing the DOXOLOGY, today…”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

Frederick Louis Ritter succeeded Edward Weibé as professor of music and head of the School of Music. Weibé, who was the first college professor of music in the United States, accepted a position at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

An accomplished composer and conductor, Ritter expanded the already unique curriculum of the music school. He also strengthened the Vassar Library’s collection of music materials.

Vassar’s college colors were chosen: The rose of sunrise breaking through the gray of women’s previous intellectual life.

The Missionary Society of Vassar College was founded. In June 1867 the name was changed to the Society for Religious Inquiry. The society conducted extensive correspondence with foreign and domestic missionaries, often requesting and—after supplying sufficient postage—receiving artifacts for their cabinet of curiosities. In December, 1870, Justus Doolittle, a missionary in Foo Chow, China, wrote to the society: “…I’m afraid that there are few things here that are interesting. Though some things are funny if you understand them.”

In 1872 the society began correspondence with African American students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, sending also from time to time contributions to help with their expenses. In December of 1874 the society’s secretary Jeannie Price heard from Robert Kelson, a Hampton student: “…I am trying to do the best I can because I feel that it is here we are to be made men and women, who can assist in educating our race, and doing other good which is needed in our country.”

The society was reorganized in 1885 as the Young Women’s Christian Association of Vassar College and for many years was popularly known as “Christians.”

Following an act of the New York State Legislature, by which the word “female” was removed from the name of the college, the trustees voted to remove from the front of Main the marble slab containing this word.

Professor Charles Farrar and his class successfully repeated Foucault’s demonstration of the rotary motion of the earth. The pendulum used, a sphere of lead weighing forty-six pounds, was suspended from the roof of Main by a wire sixty-four feet long, over the open space within the north central stairway.

Beyond Vassar

United States Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.

Founder’s Day was observed for the second time. The Muse of the Past, the Genius of Progress and her attendants, Science, Art, Religion and Music appeared in a student pageant, and:

“as the Genius of Progress alluded to Vassar College and spoke of the Founder she exclaimed, ’Behold his features!’ the signal for the curtain at the rear of the stage to be parted, revealing [his marble] bust against a background of evergreens.”

Frances A. Wood, Earliest Years at Vassar

The faculty made, in President Raymond’s words:

“the first attempt to arrange a portion of the students (about one third of the whole) in college classes.” Of the 352 students, 116 were distributed as follows: seniors, 4; juniors, 18, intermediate between juniors and sophomores, 9; sophomores, 27; intermediate between sophomores and freshmen, 13; freshmen 45. Of the remaining 236 students, 71 were in the “regular preparatory course” and 165 were pursuing “irregular courses”—that is, completing specific course requirements for placement in the collegiate classes.

John Howard Raymond, Vassar College. A College for Women, in Poughkeepsie, N. Y.

Mary Harriot Norris ’70 attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“His first remarks placed a gulf between us…. He feared, seeing who were to be his hearers, that he had brought the wrong lecture with him. There were portions of the lecture before him we might not be able to understand. He would omit such passages as far as possible.

“Abashed, yet indignant, we settled ourselves to hear what he was willing to say to us. …every now and then, Emerson would glance down at us with a gentle, winning apology of expression, then proceed with the greatest deliberation to leaf over several pages and set them aside, and, more than once, as it seemed to us, abstract whole sections, then proceed again, quite regardless of the broken sequence of thought.

“There was considerable indignation, after the lecture, on the part of the students, that Emerson had thought us incapable, to paraphrase his own language, of ‘aiming our arrows at a star.’”

Mary Harriot Norris, The Golden Age of Vassar

Vassariana, the student magazine, changed its name to The Transcript. The issues for 1869 and 1870 were called The Vassar Transcript.

The first graduation exercises were held in the Chapel. Four members of the Class of 1867, Harriet Warner, Maria Dickinson, Elizabeth Geiger and Helen D. Woodward received the first Vassar baccalaureate degrees. Certificates of completion were awarded in place of formal diplomas, pending the resolution—which happened the next year—of the question of awarding “bachelor’s” degrees to women.

The New York Times marked the event in two paragraphs:

“The Vassar College Commencement took place this morning. The weather was beautiful. Four young ladies graduated. Original compositions were read in Latin and French; also an English poem and a valedictory.

“Among the distinguished visitors were Hon. Wm. Kelly, James Harper, Jerome Hopkins, Benson Lossing, and others.”

Frequent visitors to the college in later years, two Detroit classmates, Maria Dickinson McGraw and Harriet Warner Bishop attended the college’s 50th anniversary in 1915, and Mrs. Bishop attended the 75th in 1940.

The New York Times published an account of the observation from the Vassar Observatory of the great meteor shower, the Leonids:

Observations at the Vassar College at Poughkeepsie

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, Wednesday, Nov. 14—1. A.M.

The observations began at 10:20 P. M. The light of the moon makes it impossible to see faint meteors, but he number of brilliant ones is unusually large. In the hour from 11:20 to 12:20 about six of these were seen in the neighborhood of the Great Bear and Leo.

About 12 o’clock two very bright ones passed directly across the Great Bear.

Between 12 and 1 o’clock five were seen to pass among the stars of Orion, with long trains; one in the Constellation Cygnus, and one brighter than Syrius, without train, was seen near the northern horizon, while one near Castor left a train which remained a minute, and another in Cassiopea was accompanied by a very broad train.

The association of the Leonids, observed for nearly a thousand years, with the Comet Tempel-Tuttle was under discovery at the time of this observation.

American orator and pioneer abolitionist Wendell Phillips, president of the Anti-Slavery Society, delivered his popular lecture on “Street Life in Europe” under the auspices of the Philalethean Society. On December 10, 1867, Matthew Vassar wrote to Sarah Stilson ’69, a student whose poem “Hill-Top Idyl” had pleased him at the original Founder’s Day and who was absent from the college for the term, “We have lately had several distinguishd Lecturers at our College among them Revd Newman Hall of England, Wendell Phillips, Vincent & others.”

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

The first Musical Soiree was given by Vassar students under the direction of Professor Frederick L. Ritter.

The students presented a petition to the faculty asking for permission to organize a “Student Association,” something they, the trustees and the faculty hadn’t anticipated when the college opened. Speaking in Cleveland to the annual meeting of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College (AAVC) in 1914, Maria Dickinson McGraw ’1867, one of the four first graduates of the college, recalled unintentionally raising the question with President John Raymond a year and a half earlier, at the end of her first year at Vassar, when some money was left after the first Founder’s Day.

“In settling up accounts the balance was on the right side and to be disposed of. It was suggested that we buy a flag, as the college had none. The recently closed war had made us acquainted with the Stars and Stripes, accustomed us to its sight, and not at ease without it. We decided to ask for a students’ meeting to consider the matter. Some individuals of the Faculty thought we should give the money for some cause in New York for which there had been soliciting at the college. Permission was given for the meeting; and after prayers on a Saturday morning President Raymond turned to me and said, ’Now, Miss Dickinson, for your meeting!‘ I said the request was for a meeting of the students’ association. (I had lately learned the phrase and not its technical meaning.) The President looked alarmed and said rather severely, ‘I know of no such organization.’ I explained that I simply meant a meeting of the students themselves, without the Faculty. He looked puzzled—such a thing had never been thought of—hesitated a moment, then, with a bit of a smile, looked up and said, ‘The Faculty are devited.’ Miss Mitchell and Professor Tenney rose at once and left the chapel. the others followed slowly, looking very doubtful. When the chapel door closed upon them, Dr. Raymond said cheerfully, ‘Now, Miss Dickinson, you will need a chairman.’ I replied, ‘Yes, President Raymond, we will choose one as soon as you have gone.’ Our good President’s face was a study: he said nothing; gathered up his notes and ‘other spectacles,’ and slowly walked the length of the chapel amid the densest silence, while the awed students sat with bated breath.”

The association’s constitution was approved on February 3rd. Informal meetings had been held previously.

—The Vassar Miscellany

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, the Quaker abolitionist and suffragist, spoke at Vassar on “Idiots and Women.” Commenting on the lecture in a letter written on April 28, Matthew Vassar wrote Elizabeth Powell, instructor in physical training:

“The subject of ‘Woman’s Suffrage’ or ’Idiot and Women’ was correctly quoted from the Law granting the right of them to the ballot Box, and when I first read the Law some years ago I was equaly supprised to find our Fair Sex placed in so shamefull a category as ‘criminals, paupers, Idiots &c,’ which if the Law was right by this classification I think it is full time my 300 daughters at ‘Vassar’ knew it, and applied the remidy.’

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar

Founder’s Day:

“In ’68, the last time Mr. Vassar was present, the chief event was an original cantata with music by Professor Ritter, entitled ‘The Crown of Life,’ proving later of especially beautiful significance.”

Frances A. Wood, Earliest Years at Vassar

The Class of 1868 planted a swamp white oak as their class tree on the south side of the driveway west of Main. This was the first class tree. The Class of 1867, in the first Class Day exercises, had planted ivy on Main Building.

Matthew Vassar died as he addressed the Board of Trustees.

“At 11 A.M. the Board convened, and, immediately after the organization of the meeting, Mr. Vassar proceeded to read his customary address. As his tone was somewhat feeble, and he read sitting, the members of the Board gathered closer around him and listened in profound silence. Suddenly, when he had almost finished, his voice faltered and ceased, the paper dropped from his hand upon the table by which he sat, his head fell back upon the chair and so he was gone! Without a struggle or sign of pain, his spirit had passed away; and after the lapse of a few moments, during which the machinery of life seemed gently running down, his body rested in its last repose.

“When, an hour later, the trustees reassembled to listen to the closing paragraph of the address, it was found to have an almost prophetic interest:

“‘And now, gentlemen, on closing these remarks, I would humbly and solemnly implore the Divine Goodness to continue His smiles and favor on your institution, and to bestow on all hearts connected therewith His love and blessing, having peculiarly protected us by His providence through all our college trials for three consecutive years, without a single death in our Board, or serious illness or death of one of the pupils within the college walls. Wishing you, gentlemen, a continuance of health and happiness, I bid you a cordial and final farewell. Thanking you kindly for your official attentions and services, and not expecting, from my advanced years and increasing infirmities, to meet with you officially again, I implore the Divine Goodness to guide and direct you aright in all your councils.’”

John Howard Raymond, Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond, Edited by his Eldest Daughter

Twenty-five seniors graduated on June 24, 1868, at the end of what President Raymond referred to as Vassar’s “first collegiate year.” Among the graduates who spoke were: Class Historian Mary Lavinia Avery, who spoke on “Isolation”; Elizabeth Reynolds Beckwith, whose topic was “Epochs”; and Class Prophet Mary Watson Whitney whose speech, in German, was entitled “Verboten.” “The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer” was discussed by Achsah Mount Ely, Class President Clara Eaton Glover spoke on “Earnest Living,” and Helen Landen Storke read her poem, “Days”. After this, Sarah Mariva Glazier spoke on “Force,” and Class Valedictorian Sarah Louise Blatchley delivered what an observer regarded as “an eloquent valedictory.”

President Raymond presented the graduates with their diplomas, and the chairman of the board of trustees, William Kelly, “then delivered a very touching and eloquent address upon the late Matthew Vassar.” The Founder had died the previous day while delivering what was to be his final address to the trustees.

President John Raymond presented a paper on “Liberal Education of Women” at the fifth annual University Convocation of the State of New York, convened by the Regents of the State University of New York in Albany. Accompanied at the convocation by Professor of English Truman J. Backus, Raymond emphasized the disparity in endowment support for women’s education, specifically citing the struggle of Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, for whose pioneering work an appropriation of $5,000 had been proposed and commended by Governor DeWitt Clinton but was never granted. Arguing, as reported in The New York Times, that “liberal education must be comprehensive, scientfic and careful,” “harmonious” and without “haste,” he said, the “school that gives this should be endowed, for liberal education is not governed by the laws of supply and demand, and if left to these rules alone our highest civilization would perish from the face of the earth.”

“The Regents,” The Times account continues, “had fixed the sum for the endowment of a college at $130,000, but how do the girls’ seminaries compare to this? Only two in the State have a sum of over $15,000 or $20,000 over ther debts…. This lack of endowment means ill-paid Professors, insufficient appartatus and poor buildings. No finished education can be gained with these.”

President Raymond was invited by the Regents to supply “a sketch of the late Matthew Vassar, the founder of Vassar College,” who had died on June 23, 1868, for inclusion in the published procedings of the convocation.

The New York Times, Proceedings of the Fifth Anniversary of the University Convocation of the State of New York.

Having begun her formal education at 16 and entered Vassar at 26 as a third-year student, Ellen Swallow ’1870 provided her family with reflections of life at the college in its earliest days. Selections from her letters, edited by Georgia Avery Kendrick, Lady Principal at Vassar between 1891 and 1913, appeared in The Vassar Miscellany in January and February 1899.

Early in September 1868, Swallow wrote, “Miss Lyman [the Lady Principal] said yesterday, ‘You know people will persist in calling this a school, with it is not a school at all, but a college really.’ She also said, ‘The Faculty do not consider it a mere experiment any longer that girls can be educated as well as boys.’”

On September 6, she reported, “The only trouble here, is that they won’t let us study enough. They are so afraid we shall break down, and you know the reputation of the College is at stake, for the question is can girls get a college degree without injuring their health?”

“The Early Days of Vassar, Series I,” The Vassar Miscellany, January 1, 1899

Graduating from the college in 1870, Swallow was the first woman to be granted provisional student status at the Massachesetts Institute of Technology. The recipient of the bachelor of science degree from MIT in 1873 and, simultaneously, Vassar’s master of arts degree, she was the country’s preeminent water scientist at the time of her graduation. Continuing at MIT in the laboratory of Professor William Ripley Nichols, the head of the chemistry laboratory, in 1876 she joined the staff of the institute’s new laboratory for women. She is credited as the founder of the field of home economics, being, in the words of Vassar’s Professor History Lucy Maynard Salmon, “among the very first to realize that the home affords an opportunity for scientific investigation and she became our first great pioneer home missionary.”

Lucy M. Salmon, “Ellen Swallow Richards,” Journal of Home Economics, January, 1915

On September 25th, Ellen Swallow ’70 supplied her family with a detailed description of a typical college day: “I have now got so far settled that I will give you a sketch of my daily occupations. The bell strikes at six. At quarter to seven we have breakfast. Each one can leave the dining room as soon as she is finished, and thus I get time to make my bed, which is all we have to do in our rooms. In chapel we sing and Miss Lyman [the Lady Principal] offers prayer. We have ten minutes then for arranging our rooms, or if it is done, for study, then we have twenty minutes alone for devotion and meditation in perfect quiet. Study hours do not begin until nine. At quarter of ten I go down to philosophy. I like Professor [of chemistry and physics] Farrar very much. There is an intellectual power about him. All recitations are forty minutes. At twelve we have trigonometry, at one comes dinner which occupies three-quarters of an hour, then I go out of doors for an hour, write an hour, and if my lessons are nearly ready for the next day, go into the Library directly after French and perhaps read or study a little before dressing for tea, which is at six. Then chapel and another twenty minutes as silent time; from 7.30 to 9.45 for writing, reading or study. I find that I have much time to myself and it seems so pleasant to be able to read and write with much comfort and without danger of interruption, which used to disturb me so much. I have not been homesick for a moment. I have nothing to complain of.

“It would seem that there is an immense amount of travel in this great building, but on counting up, I find that my regular work requires my going up and down about two hundred and fifty steps daily, and I have to walk nearly a mile on the corridors.”

Georgia Kendrick, “The Early Days of Vassar, Series I,” The Vassar Miscellany, January 1, 1899

Graduating from the college in 1870, Swallow was the first woman to be granted provisional student status at the Massachesetts Institute of Technology. The recipient of the bachelor of science degree from MIT in 1873 and, simultaneously, Vassar’s master of arts degree, she was the country’s preeminent water scientist at the time of her graduation.  Continuing at MIT in the laboratory of Professor William Ripley Nichols, the head of the chemistry laboratory, in 1876 she joined the staff of the institute’s new laboratory for women.  She is credited as the founder of the field of home economics, being, in the words of Vassar’s Professor History Lucy Maynard Salmon, “among the very first to realize that the home affords an opportunity for scientific investigation and she became our first great pioneer home missionary.”    

—Lucy M. Salmon, “Ellen Swallow Richards,” Journal of Home Economics, January 1915

Ellen Swallow ’1870, wrote to her mother:

“I send you a bit of our college colors, rose and silver gray. They have not had any before. These shades were manufactured expressly for us. One and one‑half yards each we have to wear in some form on public occasions.”

The colors signified the dawn of women’s education, “the rose of sunlight breaking through the gray of women’s intellectual life.”

Georgia Kendrick, “The Early Days of Vassar, Series I,” The Vassar Miscellany, January 1, 1899

Until the development of an effective vaccine in the early 1900s, the threat of typhoid fever was a constant matter of public concern. Ellen Swallow ’1870, wrote home on October 25:

“The papers are getting up terrible stories about us…. There are three or four cases of typhoid fever in the College, some cases of chills and some bad colds. All sorts of exaggerated reports are afloat. …Common report says that half of us are sick. It is not so. …The have excellent accommodations here for the sick, and people are foolish to get so nervous.”

Georgia Kendrick, “The Early Days of Vassar, Series I,” The Vassar Miscellany, January 1, 1899

Maria Mitchell was elected the first woman member of the American Philosophical Society.

James Orton, inventor, mineralogist, explorer, and innovative natural historian succeeded Sanborn Tenney as professor of natural history. Tenney, whose views on natural selection had been scrutinized before his appointment (responding, he classified it among the “infidel notions”), resigned to accept a position at Williams College. Although he was publicly neutral about evolution, Orton was a disciple of Charles Darwin, with whom he conducted a lively correspondence. His classes were among the first in America to include Darwin’s work.

On February 9, 1869, Ellen Swallow ’1870 wrote:

“Professor Orton has accepted our invitation to be professor of natural history. Professor [Adrian John] Ebell is giving a course of lectures [illustrated by “magic latern” slides]. I think the President is secretly chafing under the infliction. Dr. Bishop, one of the trustees, was in at the lectures on Friday, but slept comfortably during the hour and will doubtless say it is all right.”

Georgia Kendrick, ed., “The Early Days of Vassar, Series II,” The Vassar Miscellany, February 1, 1899

Professor of natural history and curator of the Natural History Museum, Orton was also an active researcher and an early scholar and advocate of women’s education. His The Andes and the Amazon (1870) was a landmark work, and for many years The Liberal Education of Women: the Demand and the Method: Current Thoughts in America and England (1873), which he edited, remained the most comprehensive study of its subject.

In 1876 his alma mater, Williams College, awarded Orton a doctoral degree on the basis of his work in South America as well as the research he had conducted while teaching at Vassar. Orton died on Lake Titicaca in the Andes on September 25, 1877, probably from complications of injuries sustained during the mutiny of his native escorts.

A powerful and lively teacher, Professor of Astronomy Maria Mitchell seldom engaged in public speaking. An exception was her “maiden lecture” before the Chapter Delta of Philaletheis. Ellen Swallow ’1870 was pleased to be invited to the event. “She was rather timid,” she wrote to her family, “and would not allow any of the faculty admitted, but it was charming to hear her talk of the people she had met when in Europe, and she need not have feared…. She stipulated that she should sit at a table and she gave us sometimes her notes taken at different times, and sometimes she spoke her thoughts. We all came away more proud of her than before, if that was possible. She spoke of Caroline Herschel who aided her brother so much in his discoveries and Mrs. [Mary] Somerville, whom she had the pleasure of visiting when about eighty years old, and who ‘came tripping into the room’ to meet her… She urged us to do our work well and faithfully. She said that living a little apart as she did, she could see our advantages better than we could.”

Georgia Kendrick, “The Early Days of Vassar, Series II,” The Vassar Miscellany, February 1, 1899

The first Founder’s Day following Matthew Vassar’s death was a subdued and moving memorial to him.

“There was no reception, simply tea served in the dining room after the exercises. It was a most beautiful and appropriate service with Larghetto from Beethoven’s Second Symphony, played on the organ by Miss [Charlotte] Finch ‘72; eulogy by Miss Mary W. Whitney, Class of ’68; the Second Movement of Schumann’s Symphony in B flat arranged for four pianos; a memorial hymn written by one of the seniors, the music by Professor Ritter. So from the first to the last, it was the students’ tribute to Mr. Vassar and the loving honors.”

Frances A. Wood, Earliest Years at Vassar
Beyond Vassar

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah.

Beyond Vassar

The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded in New York by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Commencement observances for the Class of 1869 began on Sunday, June 20, with a baccalaureate service at which President Raymond delivered the sermon. On Monday the graduating seniors and their guests enjoyed an examination of the equestrian students in the Calisthenium and Riding Academy and a musical soirée in the evening, featuring music by Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Beethoven, Haydn, Weber and Chopin.

Examinations in music and calisthenics were presented on Tuesday morning, the 22nd. Professor Frederic Ritter conducted the matinée musicale, which included selections from Stradella, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn, among others. The trustees met at 10 am to hear reports, among them President Raymond’s discussion of the growing college’s future needs for academic space. “He also,” The New York Times noted, “reported very favorably in relation to the general health of the students, which he attributed to their well-arranged physical exercises.”

The Times reported that those attending the calisthenic examinations were “highly entertained,” as “Over three hundred ladies of the College appeared in the drab uniform and crimson scarfs used in the exercises, and went through many different evolutions to the music of a piano.”

The afternoon’s Class Day events were attended by visitors “from all parts of the United States,” according to The Times, and consisted of instrumental music and readings, including a “Greek salutatory” by Christine Ladd ’69 and “a very humorous reading entitled ‘History,’” by Kate A. Sill ’69. In the evening, the Philalethean Society address was given by the previous year’s valedictorian, Sarah Louise Blatchley ’1868.

Commencement ceremonies were held in the Chapel on Wednesday, June 23. After an introductory prayer given by founding trustee Ezekiel Gilman Robinson, president of the Rochester Theological Seminary, and musical and oratorical presentations from the graduating class, President Raymond addressed the class and awarded the baccalaureate degree to its 34 members. Louise Parsons, ’68, received the first Master of Arts degree given by the college.

A total eclipse of the sun was observed at Burlington, Iowa, by Professor Maria Mitchell and seven of her students, one an undergraduate of the Class of 1870, the others alumnae of the Class of 1868. Their observations were later printed in the official report of Professor J.H.C. Coffin, superintendent of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, who directed the various observers of the eclipse.

“We met, on our arrival, an invitation from the Burlington Collegiate Institute to occupy its grounds, with the assurance of the Faculty that the should be fully at my disposal….

“Some half­-dozen of the graduates of our college had offered their services as assistants —one of them with a telescope—all with sharp eyes and quick perceptions.”

Maria Mitchell, “The Total Eclipse of 1869,” Hours at Home, Oct. 1869.

A Vassar student wrote home: “Have I told you that I am eating in French now? or in other words that I am at the French table. I am and have real fun…”

The college lecture program was broadened by taking advantage of the Poughkeepsie Lyceum series of lectures. The seniors attended in a body when American statesman and abolitionist, Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts, lectured at the new Collingwood Opera House in Poughkeepsie on “Caste.”

Heavy use of the library required changes in library rules: books could be checked in afternoon and evening daily, rather than only twice weekly.

Ellen Swallow ’1870 wrote to her mother about the refusal of the trustees’ lecture committee to honor the Student Association’s request that the ardent reformist lawyer and orator, Wendell Phillips, be asked to deliver his speech on “The Lost Arts” at Vassar. Phillips had spoken at Vassar in 1867, and he had been delivering this address since at least 1852. It compared the excellence of ancient arts—Egyptian glass, frescoes and metal work, Damascus steel—with more modern examples, drawing the conclusion that “democracy” was the current civilization’s uniquely fine creation.

“The College has been in a ferment today….,” Swallow wrote, “[the committee] thought that a man so identified with extreme views ought not to come here as we were not to be exposed to radical doctrines of any sort. ‘The sacred trust of fathers and mothers,’ etc…. We are about tired of poky lectures. This year has been better than last but we want the best.”

Caroline Louisa Hunt, The Life of Ellen H. Richards

Phillips spoke at Vassar on “The Lost Arts” on March 8, 1872.

The Years