Introduction and Guide to the Exhibition

By Laura Finkel, Special Collections Librarian

On February 26th, 1861, Matthew Vassar instructed the first Board of Trustees of Vassar College to ensure that his newly founded institution would provide "the most perfect education of body, mind and heart." One hundred and fifty years later Vassar College maintains this aspiration. But the founder's charge raises an important question: What is a perfect education?

Since its founding, Vassar has offered students a curriculum rooted in the tradition of the liberal arts education; but what does that entail? 1 The answers are many, varied and changing. The origins of the liberal arts predate Vassar College by centuries; their principles and applications have been contemplated and deliberated by generations of philosophers. However, one principle remained consistent: a liberal education was intended for free men with the wealth and leisure to pursue higher studies. By the mid 1800s, while Matthew Vassar was envisioning his life's legacy, an advanced liberal education was still intended only for free men of means. The institution Matthew Vassar imagined was meant to change that.

The focus of this exhibition is nineteenth-century Vassar College, with an epilogue that highlights significant later developments. The narrow scope affords a more detailed look at the issues. While a study of the full history of Vassar and the liberal arts would be valuable, an exhibition of this size could not do the story justice.

The items displayed and the sources used to describe them come largely from the College Archives; however, material was also pulled from the other two divisions of the Vassar College Archives and Special Collections Library—our rare book and manuscript collections. These collections are rich and varied; scholars come from across the globe to do research here. We are proud of the wide interest our materials garner, but a key mission of our library has always been to provide Vassar students access to primary source documents. The theme of this exhibition ties in nicely with that objective.

We frequently remind our student researchers of Vassar Professor of History Lucy Maynard Salmon's command to "Go to the Source!" Salmon was a proponent of a new form of history, which was developing just as she started her teaching career in the 1880s. Previously, history had been largely confined to the study of great acts of great men and the major political and military events that affected the western world. Salmon, along with other progressive historians of the era, chose to look closer to home to investigate the "ordinary," the local, the day-to-day. She asked, "Why search for hidden treasure abroad when the history of the world was spread out in the back yard?" 2 Today, we direct students to original materials to help them to understand what it means to interpret primary sources and to learn to apply critical thinking to their understanding of secondary sources. But perhaps most importantly, we introduce them to original documents to show them the connections between themselves and the world outside their own space and time. With this exhibition we take a similar tack: we are exploring the development of the liberal arts in the United States through the lens of Vassar College. We are extrapolating from the local to gain insight into the global.

"The Most Perfect Education of Body, Mind and Heart": Vassar and the Liberal Arts consists of a physical exhibition of Vassariana and other materials showing the connections between the growth of Vassar College and the development of the liberal arts. There is also an audio slideshow presentation, Voices from the First Year, which includes three short pieces depicting the personal experiences of students, a staff member, and a professor through a combination of contemporary images with excerpts from letters, diaries and reports. The physical exhibition is divided into eight sections. The themes of those sections are described below.

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Section 1: Vassar and the Definition of a Liberal Education (Cases 1-2)

The definition, purpose and content of a liberal education have been the source of significant debate for more than two thousand years. Most attribute the genesis of the concept to the Greeks and Romans, who defined it as study suitable for men of the elite class who could devote significant time to improvement of the mind. This kind of training was meant to produce a civilized society, standards of conduct based on cultural values, and strong leaders capable of governing using reason and logic.

In February 1861, Matthew Vassar gave an address at the first meeting of the Vassar College Board of Trustees. That address was essentially the College's first mission statement. In it, Vassar declared that a college for women equal to those for men would create a corps of women who could better educate the future citizens of the nation. He also believed that a Vassar College education would create new opportunities for women to effect positive change outside of the traditional woman's role as mother and teacher.

The founders wanted to provide women with a true liberal education, but did that mean the same thing in 1861 is it does today? How does the College's current mission statement compare to the goals of Matthew Vassar? The search for answers to these questions illustrates a series of complex developments over the last 150 years, not only at Vassar College but in liberal education as a whole.

Section 2: Prologue to Vassar (Cases 3-4)

Conceptions of liberal education grew well beyond the initial models proposed in Antiquity. With the Age of Enlightenment came a particularly significant addition to the definition: Liberal education was not just for free men, but could free men. The philosophers of the Enlightenment—including John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—argued that human beings are naturally free, similarly endowed with reason and moral sensibilities, and deserving of personal and political self-government. In the midst of these challenges to previously held beliefs in religion, science, and government, Mary Wollstonecraft called for equal education of the sexes. She wrote a number of significant volumes, but her most notable work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, helped to replace the "separate spheres" model of gender relations with one emphasizing shared responsibilities. The work was published in 1792, and its tenets were actively debated in young America. Perhaps the most significant claim was that women, if educated well, could contribute not only to childrearing and housekeeping, but could also play important roles in public life.

In Colonial America any education a woman had was meant to improve her skills as a wife and mother. After the American Revolution, woman's maternal role was elevated to a patriotic responsibility; mothers were expected to raise informed sons able to contribute to a reasoned system of government. Eventually that duty within the home morphed into a duty to educate beyond the domestic sphere, as school teachers. Because women were viewed as more virtuous and pure, they could use their womanly sense to nurture America's youth - in the nation's schools as well as in the home. 3

By the 1860s, when Milo P. Jewett was advising Matthew Vassar on a vision for the Vassar Female College, the idea that education for women should equip them to become educators themselves was still a widely held belief. We can see in Jewett's 1880 history of the College's founding that he shared this conviction:

Colleges for our own sex…are centres of tremendous intellectual and moral power… They train the leading minds of the nation, and form our legislators, statesmen and orators. But all arguments in favor of Colleges for young men are equally in favor of similar institutions for young women. Although these are not to be lawyers, legislators, and statesmen, or, if never wives and mothers, thousands of them must be the Teachers of our future public men…4

Section 3: Academies, Seminaries and Colleges (Cases 5-6)

Women's education wasn't born at Vassar College. Before Vassar there were a number of schools— variously named academies, seminaries and institutes—that provided rigorous courses of study for women. There were also some colleges that were coeducational, but the early institutions and programs for women were not equal to those for men. The difference was found not so much in the schools' respective curricula but in the goals of the students. As Milo Jewett pointed out in his history of the College, the male students who completed all four years of a college course generally planned to become doctors, lawyers, politicians, or clergy; but the thought of women entering the professions was generally frowned upon. Academies and seminaries, as opposed to colleges, generally offered a three- to four-year course which could serve as college preparatory training, but could also be an end in itself as a high level of secondary education or as training for a trade, such as surveying or business. Because they were not strictly defined as precursors to college, some academies were opened to young women along with men, and some were founded for women alone. The goal of many of the female students at these schools was to teach on an elementary or secondary level, or perhaps to found an academy of their own.

Two antebellum Poughkeepsie seminaries for women offer evidence of the malleability of structure and curricular offerings in academies and seminaries. The Cottage Hill Seminary was founded in 1837 by Lydia Booth, Matthew Vassar's niece, and the woman credited with being the first to suggest Vassar open a college for women. After Booth's death in 1854, the school was purchased by future Vassar president Milo P. Jewett. The Seminary advertised a "regular course of study…for such as wish to acquire a truly thorough, complete, and liberal education; embracing nearly the usual curriculum of our colleges" with the necessary addition of "æsthetic culture, and those graceful accomplishments, which are the appropriate adornments of the gentler sex." The "regular course" included English, Latin, French and vocal music, but students could elect to add training in instrumental music as well as drawing and painting. The ultimate goal was to produce students who exemplified the qualities of the "TRUE WOMAN—a woman fitted to meet the duties and responsibilities of every-day life; to be a dutiful daughter, a prudent wife, a judicious mother, a blessing to her own family, and ornament to society." 5

Just a few blocks south, at the Poughkeepsie Female Academy, the stated goal was to graduate "the ACCOMPLISHED WOMAN." What that meant was not clearly spelled out. The Academy offered a wider array of courses and had more faculty than Cottage Hill, but it seems likely that there wasn't so much a difference in purpose as a disparity in funding. 6

Historian Margaret Nash has pointed out that others in the field have falsely identified the seminaries at Hartford, Mount Holyoke, and Troy as singularly pioneering institutions and ignored the similarity of their curricula to that of institutions in other parts of the country. 7 However, contemporary educators did look to "the big three" for guidance. In May of 1872, Vassar's president John H. Raymond wrote to Catharine Beecher, Hartford Female Seminary's founder, for advice on the College's curriculum. Although Beecher was then an elderly woman and had long since left administrative work, she was still considered an authority on women's education. She wrote, "I have been invited in several cases… to give my views in regard to a course of study and training to prepare a woman for her distinctive duties as chief minister of the family state." Academies and seminaries like hers as well as those less familiar played a key role in the development of curriculum and structure of the early women's colleges. 8

Section 4: Conflicting Visions: The Curriculum (Cases 7-10)

The earliest plan for the Vassar curriculum was crafted largely by the College's first president, Milo P. Jewett. He used his experience at southern women's schools, as well as a research trip through Europe, as a framework. His plan called for numerous electives, concentration studies in particular fields, and no text books or written examinations—all of which was decidedly unsettling to his Vassar colleagues. There were already a number of debates in men's institutions about the liberal arts curriculum. Some schools favored a series of required courses limited to the classical fields, including Latin and Greek, while others were making room for more practical subjects, like modern languages and the sciences. Jewett's plan was more the latter; unfortunately, early women's colleges were particularly reluctant to relinquish the classical plan for fear that it would seem they had simplified the course of study due to a lack of faith in the intellectual capacities of their students. Jewett's curriculum contributed to a growing distrust of the President, and in the winter of 1864 the situation reached a boiling point. Jewett resigned in April and his plan was largely scrapped. 9

Jewett's successor, John H. Raymond, published his administration's plan for the College in the 1865 Prospectus of the Vassar Female College. The plan involved a choice between the "Regular College Course" and "Special Studies." The Regular Course was at its core a classical course while Special Studies was simply a means of handling students with advanced training or who wished to concentrate in a particular area without staying the full four years. The plan was a failure. The dual courses of study combined with low admission standards (necessary due to the extreme variation in applicants' prior education) resulted in a student body with an unwieldy range of education and aptitude, taking courses at varying levels in varying order. It took several years for Raymond and his colleagues to develop a firm curriculum and system of study. 10

Another curricular difficulty was the question of "ornamental" and "practical" subjects. Vassar was meant to provide instruction on par with Harvard or Yale; however, many qualifications were noted to address the standards of etiquette and activity expected of proper women. The definition of "Ornamental" varied but generally included subjects such as music, dance, drawing, painting, etc. But what some regarded as frivolous, others considered necessary for the development of the social intercourse of a civilized society - for men as well as women. Art and music were offered at Vassar from the first year, although they were identified as "Extracollegiate Departments." 11 In 1869, President Raymond was pleased with the increased time allocated for æsthetics for the next semester. He made a particular point of the connections between the "regular course" and music studies:

The enthusiasm with which so many of our best regular students pursue this truly feminine accomplishment affords the strongest proof that there is nothing in the highest literary and scientific culture incompatible with an enlightened zeal for esthetic culture… [O]ur best students (those who are most diligent and successful in the severer studies of our course) do more and better work, and make higher attainments in music, than any other class of pupils. 12

The issue of the "practical" subjects was more contentious. Matthew Vassar believed that in addition to the core curriculum, the College should attempt to provide women with the skills necessary to run a successful household. He campaigned long and hard for the development of a program on "Domestic Economy," but to no avail. The 1866 Prospectus outlines the College's stance on domestic education:

[A] full course in the arts of Domestic Economy cannot be successfully incorporated in a system of liberal or college education, without a far larger demand on the time of the students than would be wither practicable or wise. The result of experiments already made in this direction is not such as to encourage repetition. 13

Still, Vassar persisted. On the very day he died, at a meeting of the Board of Trustees, he suggested that the college construct a building specifically for his program. In fact, the last words he uttered were, "I renew Gentlemen my wishes heretofore expressed about the erection of a building… for the purpose of… an impartation of a thorough knowledge of domestic economy, and that provisions -." With that, he dropped his papers and was gone.

Section 5: "A Sound Mind in a Sound Body" (cases 11-12)

Vassar, along with other early colleges for women, was careful to reassure prospective students and their parents that an education would not ruin a woman's health. It was a common misconception that too much education could cause physical degeneration and illness for females. The College's First Annual Catalogue assured, "Good health is, in the first place, essential to success in study; and subsequently, whatever attainments may have been made at school or college, if health has been sacrificed to secure them, will be valueless as the means of a useful or happy life." 14

Provisions made to ensure the continued health of Vassar students included: placing the College in a rural location with space for extensive grounds, away from the dirt and crowding of a city; hiring a "lady physician" to provide medical care and training in physiology and hygiene; numerous opportunities for exercise, both indoors and out; and a litany of measures regarding proper sanitation and nutrition.

To make sure that these activities were effective, the students were carefully monitored. Physical Education Department ledgers dating from 1884 to 1899 include data you might expect, such as height and weight, but also more surprising information, such as the height of the sternum, the girth of both the left and right elbow, the breadth of the neck, and "pilosity," a measurement of hairiness. All together it was a 56-point inspection.

Section 6: Student Life (Cases 13-14)

The First Annual Catalogue also included explicit information about the regulations of the College and expectations for students' behavior. The college community was referred to as a family and its matriarch was the Lady Principal. Until her death in 1871, Hannah Lyman held the post. Parents were assured that she and the other "lady teachers" would foster the development of the students' "personal habits and manners, and [exercise] a general maternal supervision over their moral interests." They did so with structured daily routines, discouragement of visitors and visiting, and encouragement of plain dress and an attitude of "cheerful diligence." 15

On the surface, Vassar could be confused with the "Protestant nunnery" editor E. A. Andrews warned Mary Lyon against in her plans for Mount Holyoke Seminary. However, student letters, diaries and scrapbooks tell a different story. Rules weren't always eagerly accepted or obeyed: angry letters were sent to friends and family, silly notes were slipped under classmates' doors, and impromptu (and prohibited) parties were thrown in the students' rooms - sometimes after the bell had tolled lights out!

Scrapbooks in particular show the lighter side of Vassar College student life. There are hundreds of large volumes, swollen with everything from carefully crafted invitations and colorful programs for dramatic society events to napkins and dried flowers, dance cards and menus. A Vassar education was never all work and no play. 16

Section 7: Social and Political Change (Cases 15-16)

While Vassar's founding wasn't based on an overtly feminist agenda, its students and graduates were nonetheless exposed to the potential power educated women could wield in terms of social and political change. Some played roles in obvious causes which furthered women's rights (e.g. suffrage), while others contributed in less direct ways, through their efforts in fields such as social work, education, and journalism.

A telling indicator of the impact of a Vassar education is the work graduates did. By choosing just one class to investigate, a researcher can find a number of graduates who made significant contributions in a number of areas. For example: of the forty-two graduates of the Class of 1878, twelve had life-long careers as teachers, college professors or administrators (another twelve taught for at least a few years before marrying); eleven worked as editors, authors or lecturers; two became physicians; one was a missionary; one ran a training camp for nurses; and one worked with Ellen Swallow Richards at MIT when she wasn't analyzing water for the Massachusetts Board of Health.

The contributions of the Class of 1878 are impressive even in broad outline, but the details revealed in a closer look are astounding. Harriot Stanton Blatch spent her life following in her mother's footsteps as a leader in the suffrage movement as well as other reform causes. Helen Putnam was one of the country's first gynecologists. She gained national prominence for her work on children's health, and devoted her free time to causes such as women's suffrage, race relations, prison reform, and the rights of the mentally ill. Another classmate, Marie E. Ives, devoted much of her life to issues relating to Native Americans. Soon after graduation, Jenny Davis began work at the Hampton Institute, the Virginia school noted for educating African Americans as well as Native Americans. She taught physics and math there for nearly twenty years, and in 1899 became editor of the Institute's newspaper, The Southern Workman. Under her direction, the paper became a valued source of information about the education of people of color but also about racial issues in general. 17

An oft-cited purpose of the liberal arts education is the creation of a just and civil society by exposing citizens to a variety of opinions and perspectives, and encouraging active participation in the world. The Class of 1878 offers just a few of the many examples of the effect of the liberal arts tradition on Vassar's graduates and the causes they supported.

Section 8: Epilogue: "My Motto is Progress" (Cases 17-20)

The story is often told that on the morning of June 23rd, 1868, when Matthew Vassar was giving his annual Communication to the Board of Trustees, he read the words, "My motto is progress," then dropped his papers, fell back in his chair, and the Board understood that his "vital spark had fled." 18 This isn't exactly true. "My motto is progress" is on page thirteen of his fourteen-page set of notes. He only got to page eleven. However, later that day, the Board did gather to read the rest of Matthew's address and heard his warning not to "follow on in the old beaten paths" or they would "make no progress" and do no more than others had done before them.

Since then, Vassar College has repeatedly proved itself an institution of progress. The curriculum has been steadily adjusted to meet not just the goals of the College but to maintain Vassar's reputation as a premier institution. Major reforms were enacted during President Raymond's tenure, and again during the administrations of James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken. The significance of multidisciplinary study became apparent with the Euthenics program in the 1920s, and was reinvigorated in 1969 with the birth of Africana Studies, the oldest multidisciplinary program at the College today. Subsequently, the College has added Asian Studies, Latina/o Studies, Women's Studies, Environmental Studies, and Jewish Studies, among others.

Other major developments include coeducation, more than one economic crisis, increased cooperation with the local community, the abandonment then return to need-blind admissions, and many other issues.

It is impossible, of course, to chart every avenue of change during Vassar's 150 years; however, by narrowing the focus to the few key themes explored in this exhibit, one can see a pattern of innovation and excellence. How does the current mission of Vassar College compare to the founders' vision? Does today's mission more fully address the standards of a "true" liberal arts education? The current mission statement includes a commitment to diversity, a wide-ranging and flexible curriculum, and the encouragement of a "humane concern for society." At first glance, it might seem reasonable to say yes, today's mission is much closer to the ideal, but that is, of course, far too simplistic. The multiple and ever-changing definitions of the liberal arts education, not to mention the qualifying factors of historical change, make the comparison challenging at best. Nonetheless, in simply attempting to make the comparison, we can see that Vassar College has maintained high standards, adapted well to change, and continued to strive for "the most perfect education."


  1. Sources used for the general themes and concepts in the "Outline and Introduction" include: Bruce A. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986); Barbara Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (Amherst, MA : University of Massachusetts Press, 1993); Margaret A. Nash, Women's Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Andrea L. Turpin, "The Ideological Origins of the Women's College: Religion, Class, and Curriculum in the Educational Visions of Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon," History of Education Quarterly, 50 (May 2010): 133-158.
  2. Lucy Maynard Salmon, History in a Back Yard (Poughkeepsie, NY: privately printed, 1913), 4.
  3. Women's special nature and firmer grasp on morality was also deemed useful in churches, missions, and other benevolent and reform organizations. See Nash, Women's Education in the United States, 55-59.
  4. Milo P. Jewett , Origins of Vassar College (unpublished manuscript), Milo Parker Jewett Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries, 13-14.
  5. Catalog of Cottage Hill Seminary, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (New York: Edward O. Jenkins, 1856), 10-12.
  6. Circular of the Poughkeepsie Female Academy, 1860-'61, Poughkeepsie, Dutchess Co., N.Y. (Poughkeepsie: Osborne and Killey, 1860), 9-10.
  7. Nash, 3-4.
  8. Autograph letter signed by Catharine Beecher to John H. Raymond, 22 May 1872, Autograph Files, Vassar College Special Collections and Archives Library.
  9. A full account of Jewett's troubled administration is available in James M. Taylor's Before Vassar Opened (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 129-201.
  10. See Raymond's "The Course of Study," a paper given to the International Exposition in Vienna, 1873, reprinted in Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond, ed. by Harriet Raymond Lloyd (New York: Fords, Howard and Hulbert, 1881), 561-577.
  11. First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1865-66 (Poughkeepsie: John A. Gray & Green, 1866).
  12. From the 1868-1869 President's Report, quoted in Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond, 588-589.
  13. Prospectus of Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, N. Y., May 1865 (New York: Printed by C. A. Alvord, 1865), 16. The outline continues to say that "Domestic Economy will be taught theoretically through text books and lectures, by a competent instructress," but subsequent catalogs do not list such a person, nor do they mention the subject.
  14. First Annual Catalogue, 35.
  15. First Annual Catalogue, 33-34.
  16. Andrews is quoted in Horowitz, Alma Mater, 57.
  17. During the early stages of her research for this exhibition, co-curator Rebecca Edwards read through a number of class reunion booklets and class letters in Vassar's Special Collections and Archives Library. In those records she discovered the work of Jennie E. Davis and Marie E. Ives. More information on the Class of 1878 can be found in the Alumnae/I Biographical Files in the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College Records, as well as the Bulletin of Vassar College, Alumnae Biographical Register Issue 29 (February 1939), 40-42.
  18. Matthew Vassar, Jr., Diary entry, Volume 4 of the Matthew Vassar Jr. Diaries, Local History and Genealogical Collections, Adriance Memorial Library, Poughkeepsie, NY.