Rediscovering the “classical element” at NYC’s Rutgers Female Institute & College (1838-1895)

Official seal of the Rutgers Female Institute, featuring Revolutionary War personality Col. Henry Rutgers. From its 25th anniversary celebratory booklet (1864)

There is so much to admire in the new (2018) book The Douglass Century: Transformation of the Women’s College at Rutgers University, coauthored by Rutgers faculty members Kayo Denda (Libraries), Mary Hawkesworth (Women’s and Gender Studies), and Fernanda H. Perrone (Libraries), and published by Rutgers University Press. It is deeply researched, lucidly written, lavishly illustrated and wonderfully produced, and features more than a few narrative twists. In short, the volume marks an immensely engaging and indeed indispensable contribution to the history of women’s education in America.

For many readers, one startling item will leap out right at the beginning of the first chapter (pp. 4-6), the whole account of New York City’s Rutgers Female Institute. It was organized in 1838 with a bequest of three lots of land from the estate of Colonel Henry Rutgers—namesake of our university—and later (1867), with the introduction of a robust classics curriculum, transmuted into the Rutgers Female College. As such, it became the first institution in the city of New York where women could earn the degree of Bachelor of Arts—more than 20 years before the chartering of Hunter College and the founding of Barnard College.

First location of the Rutgers Female Institute (1839-1860), in NYC’s old Seventh Ward, in the lower east side of Manhattan. From the institution’s 3rd Circular (1841).

For almost six decades, the Rutgers Female Institute / College projected at least the appearance of success. Just three years after it formally opened its doors in May 1839, it was said to have “upward of four hundred…day scholars” (The New World, 31 Dec 1842). In 1846, 680 pupils were enrolled for the year. By 1851, the institution counted a total of 2618 alumnae and current students. Yet a much smaller number completed the full course of instruction—an average of about a dozen and a half young women each year in the 1840s through mid-1860s, according to official lists. Yet by way of comparison, Columbia College further uptown was graduating just about 25-30 men each year in this general era.

The Institute’s mission from the start was explicitly to promote Christianity—and, over time, implicitly to oppose women’s suffrage and associated progressive movements. Its main principle of selection evidently was to find candidates who could afford the hefty fees—$200 per annum for day students in 1871, which in economic status terms today would be equivalent to at least ca. $30,000. It did admit Jewish students, as well as at least one young African-American woman—Malvina Barnett, who won the school’s gold medal in English composition in 1841.

Alas, though it proudly advertised on its official seal and elsewhere the patronage of Henry Rutgers, the Rutgers Female Institute / College had no connection with our institution in New Brunswick. In the early 1890s, it did seek an association, but from a position of severe financial weakness, and to no avail. As Rutgers President William H. Demarest noted in his 1924 History of Rutgers College (p. 485, cited in The Douglass Century p. 13), in 1891 “the admission of women to the college became again a subject of discussion, ten years after its former discussion and rejection [i.e., in 1881].  An overture was even received from the Rutgers Female College in New York, which later went out of existence, proposing that it be brought into connection. Again all such proposal [sic] was rejected. The Trustees and the college body were positively opposed to coeducation.” (Many thanks to Prof. Mary Hawkesworth for discussing this with me.)

Payment of invoice by A.T. Briggs to Rutgers Female Institute (1859), incidentally providing valuable information on the educational structure of the institution at the time. Credit: Museum of the City of New York

On the face of things, the Rutgers Institute / College had much on offer. It occupied conspicuous Manhattan real estate (most famously, an elegant neo-Gothic block across from the present site of the NY Public Library); quickly established a chapel, chemistry laboratory, astronomical station and well-stocked library; boasted a prominent if not terribly effective (all male) board and (mostly male) administration; and over the years developed a respectable faculty (overwhelmingly male, aided by women as assistants) and thoughtful curriculum, under the aegis of such academic departments as “Mercantile and Banking”. Distinguished visitors were readily available to judge its various prize competitions, including Edgar Allen Poe (in 1840) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (in 1851). At one point it operated a (short-lived) Morningside Heights campus, in a nine-acre park which is now the site of Columbia’s Law School and School of International and Public Affairs. For its commuting students, it also offered a “bus” service with elegant horse-drawn pale green carriages.

The second home of the Rutgers Female Institute / College (1860-1882): a block of Gothic houses on Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets. Visible at right is part of the retaining wall for the Croton Reservoir (established 1842), which provided the first running water for NYC. That site is now occupied by the NY Public Library. Credit: Rutgers Female Institute 1851 catalogue.

In 1851 the claim was made for the Rutgers Female Institute that, “with the exception of the dead languages, its course is quite as extensive as that of our best colleges”. But Classics always played at least some role in the NYC Rutgers’ academic program. An early faculty member was the brilliant linguist and lexicographer George J. Adler (1821-1868), who from 1846-1849 held the post of professor at the Institute of both Latin and German, while simultaneously serving as Professor of German at New York University. On leaving the Rutgers Female Institute, in October 1849 Adler sailed to England, where he struck up a firm (and ultimately, influential) friendship with fellow passenger Herman Melville. None of Adler’s successors in Classics at the Rutgers Female Institute of College would approach his scholarly stature. As for Adler himself, in 1853 he was committed to New York’s Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where he was to die.

In the first decades of the Rutgers Female Institute, Latin was offered only as an elective, for which students (in 1859) were charged $5.00 extra. Yet for the Rutgers Institute to get a college charter from the New York Board of Regents, Classics had to play a larger curricular role. At the 1867 Rutgers commencement, its first as a College, the president Henry N. Pierce grudgingly accepted this reality: “…a college founded to-day, should conform its curriculum to the growth of the world, in letters, and thought, and science, and civilization, and Christianity;—while the Greek and Latin languages should be studied only for specific ends.” At the same gathering, another academic was called upon to speak on “the necessity of a classical element in a liberal education, but he declined doing so, on the ground that [at Rutgers Female College] there was no new feature” (New York Times 26 April 1867).

Credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 27 February 1869 p. 380

Five years later, at the College’s 1872 convocation, a new president, Rev. George W. Sampson, set out his vision of a “curriculum of collegiate study especially adapted to young women”, arguing vigorously and in detail that “the mathematics and the classic tongues…must be fundamental in female colleges”. He gained his point—but only after a full 14 years, when his suggested changes were instituted in 1886.

Oddly, President Sampson thought that wide reading in actual Greek and Latin literature was of much less importance than mastering the rules of grammar (for their own sake) and prose composition:

“The female college may certainly take the position that the thorough mastery of the general structure of the Latin and Greek tongues attained in the grammar of these languages, a practical power to employ their etymology and syntax by the drilling of prose composition, and a familiarity with the vocabulary and idioms of the best historical, poetical, and philosophical writers attained in choice selections from a few works, as a modification of the curriculum of classic study, may give time for added lessons in modern languages, while attended with no real loss of true culture in the classic tongues.”

Half of a stereoscopic view of the Fifth Avenue quarters of the Rutgers Female College, 1870s

Rutgers Female College offered two academic degrees, the Artium Baccalaurea (A.B.) with four years of Classics, and the more general Literarum Baccalaurea (L.B.) with Classics requirements in just the first two years of the program. A glance at the details of the Greek and Latin curriculum over the years, in its various permutations, suggests that classes were slow-paced with a heavier emphasis on non-literary aspects of the ancient language than at competitor schools such as Elmira College, Ingham University (Le Roy NY) and Vassar College.

As it happens, the chartering of the Rutgers institution as a college in 1867 was to have a calamitous effect on its enrollments. The first graduating class of the relaunched school, in 1870, had just 10 members. And that number was never surpassed. For instance, the year 1877 saw just three graduates and one student taking credit for the partial completion of the course. In 1888 the College had two degree recipients and two take partial credit. Of those who received degrees, less than half took the more demanding A.B. option. The Rutgers Female College essentially collapsed in 1895, and then disappeared so quickly and completely that in subsequent years some of its own alumnae could not figure out where their alma mater had gone.

Fifth Avenue looking south (ca. 1880): Rutgers Female College is at left, Croton Reservoir is at right. Credit: NY Public Library Digital Collections

It’s safe to say that this 19thcentury college today is essentially forgotten. For instance, already in 1929 T. Woody in his monumental History of women’s education in the United States hardly noted its existence. Nor does the Rutgers Female Institute / College find mention in standard references such as L. Eisenmann (ed.), Historical dictionary of women’s education in the United States (1998). Today—for what it’s worth—on Wikipedia it doesn’t have an entry, or even a place on the main historical list of women’s colleges, though four of its alumnae are noted as such in their individual biographical entries. A few great blogposts compensate for these lacunae: see here and here. Most seriously, there is no central institutional home for its archival material, which even now is being scattered piecemeal to the proverbial four winds through the art market (including eBay).

There is much to lose. For instance, the Rutgers Institute’s first principal, Charles E. West (who served from 1839 until 1851, when he then received an honorary LL.D. from New Brunswick’s Rutgers College), was an early enthusiast of portrait photography. Working with New York daguerreotypist George W. Prosch—the first camera maker in America—West started the tradition of annual class and individual student photos. Several from the 1850s have come up for auction in recent years.

Graduating class of Rutgers Female Institute, probably 1854. Credit: Houghton Library (Harvard) TypDAG2784

But let’s once again turn briefly to Denda, Hawkesworth and Perrone, and  underline some of the highlights of the account they provide in The Douglass Century of the Rutgers Female Institute / College:

“In 1839 the Rutgers Female Institute opened as the first institution of higher education for women in New York City. Although it had no ties to Rutgers College, the all-male institution in New Brunswick, it shared a key benefactor. New York real estate magnate and Revolutionary War hero Henry Rutgers (1745-1830) provided the land for the facility as a bequest.”

After three decades, “…the Rutgers Female Institute was authorized by the New York Board of Regents to change its name to Rutgers Female College and begin offering the four-year bachelor of arts degree in 1867. According to the 1867-1868 Catalogue the college offered a “classical curriculum designed to match that of any male college in New York”.

“The Rutgers Female College provides a fascinating model of single-sex education designed to emulate the standard of education established for men. Yet the college catalog included an additional course for fourth-year students unlikely to be found in any male college: ‘Legal Relations of Women;’ which provided ‘a general view of the legal condition and rights of both single and married women’. Beyond this innovative course in women’s rights, the Rutgers Female College also embraced sex-specific pedagogical practices, supposedly honed through years of work with women students.”

“According to the male educators who designed the curriculum for the Rutgers Female College, educational practices, which eliminate competition, orient the woman student toward the Bible, ‘the only source of true wisdom’; and inculcate ‘true piety in woman that alone which really can draw out from the heart of man, the sentiment of lasting veneration;’ foster individual happiness, preserve families, and advance civilization.”

These lofty goals did not prove enough to guarantee its survival. Indeed it’s not hard to see, at least in outline, how and why the Rutgers Female College met its demise.

From album “Souvenir of Rutgers Female Institute, Class of 1860, Annie van Glahn”. Credit: Swann Auction Galleries, sale 2208 lot 52 (23 March 2010)

First, there is the question of timing. At the Rutgers Institute’s inception, it could be said that “the giving of diplomas to young ladies was looked upon as absurd” (New York Times, 15 June 1888). But then, starting in the mid-1850s, the institution faced ever-growing competition for prospective students seeking a demanding single-sex education, from Elmira College (opened 1855), Ingham University (chartered in 1857), Vassar (established 1865), Wells (1868), Wellesley and Smith (1875), the Harvard ‘Annex’ (1879), Bryn Mawr (1885), Evelyn in Princeton NJ (1887), Mount Holyoke (collegiate status in 1888), and—in New York City itself—from Hunter (chartered as a college in 1889) and Barnard (1892). That is to say nothing of eastern coeducational colleges such as Swarthmore (1864) and Cornell (1869).

Many of these institutions featured lush campuses; the Rutgers Female College on the other hand by 1882 had removed itself from its iconic address at Fifth Avenue and 41st Street (across from what was then the site of city’s reservoir and the future Bryant Park) to cramped quarters—two adjoining houses on West 55th Street.

Final (1882-1895) home of the Rutgers Female College, at 52-54 West 55th Street. Deemed “inadequate” in 1891, the Rutgers Alumnae Association launched a fundraiser to purchase a new building somewhere between 70th and 110th Streets (never realized). Credit: Google Street View

True, in a very real sense the Rutgers Female Institute rose to the challenge of the Zeitgeist in 1867 when it recast itself as a College. But one can argue that its reorganization did not go far enough. Women never attained a place on the board of trustees, nor held a significant leadership role in the College. Neither administration nor faculty ever bothered to draft regulations for the management of the College. And the classical curriculum at the core of the College was unimaginative, even by contemporary standards: for instance, Vergil, a staple of first year curricula at other women’s colleges, does not seem to have been taught.

Credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 27 February 1869 p. 380

It is telling that in the late 1880s and early 1890s the College ignored the nationwide student insistence on wearing academic gowns, seen in women’s colleges at Wellesley (especially), Mt. Holyoke, Vassar and elsewhere. A Rutgers commencement in the early 1890s looked very much as it did in the early 1840s, with graduates in the Chapel processing in flowing white dresses amid bushels of flowers—except that in those later years there were not so many taking their diplomas.

This semi-stifling conservatism extended to the great political questions of the day. In a sense, president George W. Sampson set the tone for the final decades of the College in his 1872 convocation address:

“All history indicates that woman, by her moral influence, may privately control the counsels of men in their associations for public ends; and that same history equally shows that it is women who are women indeed, filling their positions as heads of families, who most instinctively condemn the few unsexed advocates of female suffrage, who, from personal ambition, misrepresent their sex.”

An “exhibition” in the Chapel of the Rutgers Female College (pre-1882). Credit: New York Times Magazine 2 May 1937 (reproducing an earlier image).

In 1884 a later College president, 72 year-old Presbyterian minister Samuel Dickerson Burchard, was widely considered to have cost the Republicans the US presidential election, because of an inflammatory anti-Catholic remark he made at a meeting of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee, a week before the vote. This energized the Irish and Catholic voters of New York City, who came out heavily for Democrat NY governor Grover Cleveland over Republican James G. Blaine of Maine. Subsequently, a spectrum of individuals surely kept this incident in mind when contemplating a college.

But most consequentially, the Rutgers Female Institute / College never established an endowment, and in general was slow and ineffective at raising funds. Plus the trustees’ oversight of finances seems practically non-existent. For instance, in 1871, soon after Henry N. Pierce became President, the Trustees pathetically had to report to the New York State Board of Regents that “not having access to the accounts of the previous administration, and owing to the lamented death of their Secretary…they are unable to make their annual financial report ; and they therefore ask the indulgence of your honorable body.” In 1891 it was discovered that the College’s Principal and instructor in ancient and modern history, Eleanor S. West, a Rutgers alumna, had stolen over $3000 (in 2018 dollars, perhaps over $450,000 in terms of economic status) from the institution over the previous six years. “She had left some of the best paying pupils off of the [registration] list and collected their bills herself”, reported New Orleans’ Daily Picayune (2 December 1891).

Tuition receipt (1865) from the Rutgers Female Institute. Spotted (June 2018) on eBay.

At about the same time, the Rutgers Female College trustees charged one of their number with robbing the institution of a much greater sum of money. The story is a complex one. In short, Jacob Tallman, a builder and real estate speculator, joined the trustees in 1871. Tallman was alleged soon afterward to have conspired with both new president Henry N. Pierce and Pierce’s brother to mortgage the College’s elegant Fifth Avenue property, which he then snatched up for much less than its real value. In this way Tallman became the College’s landlord, charging its board a hefty rent—which it couldn’t always pay. In 1882 Tallman evicted the College from its longstanding home, and then resold it for $180,000. He pocketed all the proceeds as personal profit. The trustees later cried foul, and sued Tallman in a case that by 1891 had gone all the way to the NY Supreme Court. In 1893 the court decided in favor of Tallman and against the trustees, taking a dim view of their lack of due diligence.

By that time, the fate of the Rutgers Female College was pretty well sealed. The Panic of 1893, and the four year depression that followed, forced the College—already sinking under heavy debt—into bankruptcy. It closed its doors permanently in 1895.

It still comes as a surprise to see how quickly and thoroughly this institution disappeared. On 15 October 1911 a Rutgers alumna of the class of 1868 wrote to the ‘Queries and Answers’ column of the New York Times with a request. “I am anxious to learn all I can about the Rutgers Female College from which I graduated many years ago. It was a flourishing educational institution in the latter sixties and earlier seventies, but in recent years I have heard nothing of it.”

Fifth Avenue looking north, with Rutgers Female College and then Temple Emanuel on right. Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections

The answer from the newspaper? “An earnest, but fruitless, attempt has been made to find out what became of the Rutgers Female College, but the question is admitted to the Query Column in the hope that some one of THE TIMES readers may be able to give its history completely.”

As it happens, someone did step up, with a note (published 12 November 1911): “Rutgers Female College is extinct—a thing of the past.” However, she continued that the Rutgers Alumnae Association still had a small weekly meeting, and would be holding its annual reunion in New York City on 13 January 1912. In the years that followed, in the Times one occasionally spots the name of the Rutgers Female College in obituaries.

T. Corey Brennan

Detail from class portrait, half plate daguerreotype, Rutgers Female Institute class of 1856. Credit: Kaminski Auctions, lot 9080 (23 May 2013).

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