Founders Five


As construction advanced and bills mounted, Miss Lyon began to publicize her educational theories; and there was considerable objection to those, too, especially to her novel idea of keeping tuition costs down by having students share household chores. That notion, in an era when any sort of advanced education for women was the luxury of the very rich, seemed both radical and repulsive to many. “Servile labor” was one of the kinder phrases applied to it. It was widely assumed that no gentlewoman would ever attend Mount Holyoke. “She wishes to consider us as neither servants nor boarders, but daughters” wrote one of the early students, but the public at large was hard to convince. Mary Lyon did her best to assure potential supporters that the housework would be discontinued if it became too onerous and promised that it was merely a temporary economy; but the system continued to arouse serious misgivings in parents and students alike. Miss Lyon was strongly urged to abandon the domestic chores entirely or at least revise her sensible program and have the girls grow grapes or raise silkworms instead. (These were two ladylike activities that had recently become very fashionable, and it was thought that they might be profitable as well.) The founder of Mount Holyoke, however, remained adamant, and there were no mulberry bushes or vineyards in South Hadley when the college finally opened in 1837.

Incoming students were tested for proficiency in grammar, modern geography, American history, and arithmetic. They were also expected to have familiarized themselves with WaH.v on the Mind, a rather forbidding theological treatise far less penetrable than it sounds. One year’s room, board, and tuition at the new seminary cost sixty-four dollars, a mere fraction of the sum that prosperous fathers had been spending on china-painting lessons, French tutoring, or dancing masters for their daughters. The advantages of the new venture became suddenly and dramatically apparent to canny New Englanders. The seminary was overbooked from the very beginning. At the end of the first year Mary Lyon was somewhat surprised to discover that the school had actually turned a rather sizable profit. She promptly reduced the yearly rates to sixty dollars, which left just the right amount of money for operating expenses with no embarrassing surplus. Objections to the domestic duties began to wane, and Mary Lyon noted with considerable satisfaction that “the vivacity and apparent vigor of our young ladies near the close of the winter term of twenty weeks, and at the examination, was noticed as unusual by gentlemen of discrimination.” That, in the i83o’s, was what counted, but even so almost twenty-five years would elapse before the next great experiment.


Unlike Mary Lyon, Matthew Vassar was a founder to pique the most jaded imagination. A pious Poughkeepsie brewer, his vision of immortality was more or less fixed upon a hospital, though from time to time he thought of endowing a library, a boys’ school, an orphanage, and, briefly, a home for indigent females in which they would be trained as domestic servants. Each of these causes bloomed for a while in his affections but quickly faded. Offseason he spoke glumly of giving the bulk of his fortune to the Baptist Church, a safe solution but one that depressed him. In rare surges of family feeling he would talk of leaving his entire fortune to his nephews, Matthew, Jr., and Guy. The younger men naturally thought this a splendid notion and encouraged him heartily. Their bounding enthusiasm, however, aroused certain misgivings in the old gentleman’s mind, and he decided against this arrangement.

During most of Vassar’s long and uneventful life he showed so little interest in women that even some of his closest associates were unaware that he was married. Like many self-made men of his time, he had succeeded wonderfully without any higher learning whatever and was fond of proclaiming that fact. Childless, narrowminded, provincial, and somewhat misogynistic, he was the last man anyone would have expected to found a women’s college. The shadowy Mrs. Vassar, to whom he remained bound in wedlock for fifty years, neither inspired nor encouraged his ultimate project. In fact there is no evidence that she ever even visited it. When Vassar abruptly announced at the age of sixty-three that he was leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the higher education of females, the decision seemed totally outlandish, coming as it did from a man who turned apoplectic whenever the sensitive subject of women’s rights and possible suffrage arose. Matthew, Jr., and Guywere convinced that so astonishing a change of heart could never have happened without an agent provocateur , and they were right.

In the mid-1850’s an obscure schoolmaster named Milo P. Jewett appeared in Poughkeepsie and inquired about properties that might be suitable for an academy. There weren’t many. The only one that seemed at all appropriate was a vacant schoolhouse owned by the senior Matthew Vassar. Jewett put a down payment upon the building at once, even though it was far more modest than the colonnaded establishment he claimed to have left behind in Marion, Alabama. That, he told Mr. Vassar, had been one of the largest and finest female institutes in the world, but growing tensions in the South had made terrible inroads upon his enrollment. Mr. Jewett was originally from Vermont, and by 1855 or so southern planters were no longer sending their daughters to Yankee schoolmasters with abolitionist leanings.