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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Banner image: Caroline E. Furness

Caroline E. Furness

Caroline E. Furness ’1891

Caroline Furness was professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Vassar for 20 years. Vassar president Henry Nobel MacCracken identified her course on variable stars as the first of its kind offered in any American college, and her book, Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars (1915), became a standard in the field. […]

The French Tank

Vassar’s relationship with France has been long and affectionate, going back to the construction of Main Building, modeled on the Tuileries Palace. Since that structure was so severely damaged in the fighting during the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871 that it had to be demolished, architectural historians look to Main Building to get […]

The Founding of The Seven Sisters

Nicknamed The Seven Sisters, the consortium of women’s colleges— Barnard, Bryn Mawr , Mount Holyoke, Smith, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley—was officially formed in 1926 in order to combat “the…crisis which the women’s colleges [were] facing,” namely, the difficulties women’s schools were having in raising endowment money sufficient for the desired caliber of education for these […]

The Founders of Vassar

THE FOUNDERS OF VASSAR. Mary W. Whitney, ’68. ADDRESS DELIVERED AT VASSAR COLLEGE ON FOUNDER’S DAY, APRIL 26, 1895. A few of us present this afternoon, a very few, were at Vassar in the days when Matthew Arnold, standing where I stand, gave us his lecture upon Emerson. In his peculiar but characteristic manner he […]

Founder’s Day

There’s a day in the springtimeAs the campus knows wellWhen the book is laid upon the shelfAnd silent’s the bell.– from a Founder’s Day “Traditional” On April 29, 1866, around four in the afternoon, President John H. Raymond arrived at Matthew Vassar’s Springside residence, and invited him for a leisurely ride to the college. En […]

Joseph K. Folsom

Sociologist, economist, psychologist, anthropologist and therapist: Joseph Kirk Folsom, a member of the Vassar College faculty from 1931 until his retirement in 1959, embraced and practiced these varying and often differing fields of study. His prolific and thought-provoking writing, primarily about the family in modern society, earned him awards and honors during his long career […]

The Folklore Foundation

The Folklore Foundation arrived at Vassar in 1920 with Martha Beckwith, a folklorist who studied under Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist, at Columbia. Considered remarkably progressive at the time, the project studied and examined all “folk” elements of culture from folk tales, to folk dancing, to slang. While the foundation conducted research on a wide […]

Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger

Emily Jordan Folger ’1879

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are grateful to Dr. Stephen H. Grant for this article on a distinguished member of the class of 1879. He is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014), the first biography of Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger, founders […]

First Women Trustees

The trustees did not respond to the request for alumnae representation on their Board until June 7, 1887, when, presumably under President Taylor’s influence, they permitted the alumnae to nominate three of their own to fill vacancies on the Board. The alumnae elected from among themselves Florence M. Cushing, Elizabeth E. Poppleton, and Helen Hiscock Backus.

The First Students

Introduction Preparing in 1873 an account of its brief history, John Howard Raymond, the president of Vassar Female College and the professor of moral philosophy when it opened in September 1865, recalled the well over 1,000 first applicants for admission. “A large number, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four,” he wrote, “from all parts […]

The First in the World?

The longstanding claim that Vassar’s original heating and gas generation system was the first centralized system in the country, and perhaps, the world, is a widely echoed piece of college lore.

Fire of 1918

On February 12, 1918, the student residents of Main Building were seated at dinner when the fire alarm rang. The girls filed outside quickly and calmly, obeying the procedures for what they thought was a drill. Within a few minutes, smoke began rising from the back of the building, and then, suddenly, part of the […]

Field Day

On a rather cold, rainy November 9, 1895, Vassar became the first women’s college in the United States to hold a field day. Approximately seventeen girls, supervised by the Classics professor L. J. Moore, participated in five track events: the hundred-yard dash, the running broad jump, the running high jump, and the two-hundred-and-twenty-yard dash. Events […]

Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Cooperative House

Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Cooperative House (1951) Marcel Breuer On October 5th, 1951, trustees, students, faculty and other members of the college community gathered for the presentation to the campus of a new building, one quite unlike anything they had seen before at Vassar: the Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Cooperative House. Donated by Dexter M. Ferry […]

Frances Daly Fergusson

Frances Daly Fergusson became the ninth president of Vassar College on July 1, 1986. Her inauguration coincided with the 125th anniversary of Vassar’s founding. During her term as president, Ms. Fergusson has inspired philanthropy unprecedented in the history of the college. She has been a passionate advocate for education, and particularly liberal education, both here and abroad, […]

Faculty Shows

What could be better than to see your professors check their scholarly personae at the door and sing and dance with the sole purpose of entertaining you? In the Vassar tradition of faculty shows, for many decades professors put on a play, usually of the comedic variety, solely for a student audience. “It never fails […]

The Experimental Theatre of Vassar College

Perhaps fittingly, what was to be the Vassar drama department emerged from the basement of the Assembly Hall, the former Calisthenium and Riding Academy and the home of the English department. Before a woman who would change it forever arrived from Cambridge, Massachusetts, drama at Vassar had been considered a child of that department, but […]


The introduction of electric lighting during the 1880s attracted attention everywhere. On January 27, 1911, a group of Vassar trustees met in New York City at the home of the naturalist and Vassar trustee, Albert S. Bickmore, for a special meeting to evaluate the condition and the future of Vassar’s heating and lighting system. When […]

Crystal Eastman ’1903

“Life [is] a big battle for the complete feminist,” wrote the radical feminist, activist, and civil rights advocate Crystal Eastman, and few have been better equipped for fighting the battle than Eastman herself. Crystal Catherine Eastman was born on June 25, 1881, to Rev. Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. Although the family lived in […]

Elizabeth M. Drouilhet’s Convocation Speech, 1976

The Fifty Years of Vassar I Have Seen: Remarks made at Senior Convocation, April 28, I976 Mr. President, Members of the Faculty, the Senior Class, and all of you with whom I have worked so closely these many years. Rarely have you had so reluctant a speaker. Having carefully avoided making a speech for the […]

Interview with Elizabeth Moffatt Drouilhet

Introduction Elizabeth Moffat Drouilhet was a member of the Vassar Class of 1930. She served as Acting Warden of the College from 1940–1941 and was appointed Warden in 1941. She retired from the post in 1976. She returned briefly to assist Acting Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth Daniels during a crisis in the late 1970s. […]

Distinguished Displaced Scholars

Following in the footsteps of his father, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University, Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar’s president from 1915 to 1946, worked in various ways for peaceful problem-solving and international understanding during his time at Vassar. Two seminal contributions to Vassar’s liberal arts education were two programs aiding established European scholars who […]

The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics

THE STORY OF THE IMPACT of a group of Vassar women trustees and professional social scientists on the vulnerable, receptive, and eager Henry Noble MacCracken between 1915 and 1925, in his early stage of formulating and executing his forward-looking academic policies, revolves around a floating, much misunderstood, and (to some on the faculty at the […]

George Sherman Dickinson

George Sherman Dickinson, affectionately known as “Dicky,” served as Professor of Music, Music Librarian, and Chair of the Music Department during his thirty-seven years at Vassar. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1888, Dickinson went on to attend Oberlin College as an undergraduate. In 1909, he received an A.B. from Oberlin, and one year later […]

“Diabolus”: “Commencement at Vassar Female College”

The closing ceremonies events in 1866 were reported in The New York Times on June 28, 1866. The paper’s “Special Correspondent” for the event was the pseudonymous “Diabolus,” who gives a peculiarly effective picture of the energy, hope, and potential in the new college. Article reprint included.

Carl N. Degler: “Vassar College”

Carl N. Degler, the emeritus Margaret Byrne professor of American history at Stanford University, taught in Vassar’s history department from 1952 until 1968. His essay, “Vassar College,” appeared in American Places: Encounters with History, edited by William E. Leuchtenburg. Its inclusion in the Vassar Encyclopedia is courtesy of Professor Degler and by permission of Oxford […]

Carl Degler

“History,” Carl Degler wrote in 1981, “is heavily concerned with values, and just because it is concerned with values…history cannot have any breakthroughs comparable to those in physics, biology, or any other science.” That Degler viewed history as a modest subject would not surprise those who knew him; he was a modest man who often […]

Hallie Flanagan Davis

Hallie Ferguson was born in Redfield, South Dakota, on August 27, 1890. As a young child, she and her siblings would stage dramatic productions in the family living room. Little did anyone suspect that the tiny Irish girl from the Midwest would grow up to become one of the leading forces in early 20th century […]

Dr. Katharine Bement Davis ’1892

On January 1, 1914, Vassar alumna Dr. Katharine Bement Davis became New York City’s first female Correction Commissioner. She was the first woman to head a uniformed agency, and one of the first women to head a major bureaucratic organization in the United States. Davis was born in Buffalo, N. Y. on January 15, 1860. […]

Dance at Vassar

“Among other physical exercises claiming consideration, dancing has been presented to our Executive Committee for their considerations and has been urged by many citizens. The attention of the Christian community has been awakened by recent writings pro and con on these questions. The latest…on the ‘Incompatibility of Amusements with Christian Life.’…Years ago I made up […]

Daisy Chain

Perhaps the most famous of Vassar traditions, the annual Daisy Chain is also one of the oldest. Every year, a group of sophomore women, chosen for their leadership skills, class spirit, and eagerness to volunteer their time, are chosen by a committee of the senior class council to carry a 150-foot chain of daisies and […]

Cushing House

Cushing House (1927) Allen and Collens In a letter to President Henry Noble MacCracken in February 1926, the college warden, Jean Palmer ‘93, wrote, “Vassar is appearing as an exponent of euthenics and the present living conditions seem inconsistent….” The concept of Euthenics was defined by Ellen Swallow Richards ‘70 in The Cost of Shelter […]

Florence Cushing ’1874

Born on April 24, 1853, Florence Maria Cushing was the first of the five children of Boston merchant Hayward Pierce Cushing and his wife, Harriet Maria Pierce Cushing, and also the first of the three Cushing sisters to graduate from Vassar.  Jennie Cushing graduated in the Class of 1880, and Ida in 1883. Graduating in 1874, […]

Cupid and Psyche

The Neglected Psyche The real Venus was angered by the neglect of her altars and the attention given to this mere mortal. She summoned her son, Cupid, and bid him punish this upstart. As a result, when suitors came to seek the hands of the young girls, none came for Psyche. All the men were […]

Photo of Adelaide Crapsey

Adelaide Crapsey ’1901

In poetry, perhaps more than any other genre, it is always tempting to merge the personal and the persona. This is particularly true in the case of Adelaide Crapsey, given that her work was published posthumously—thanks in large part to the diligence of her devoted colleagues, family, and friends.

Cooperative Living Projects at Vassar

In the fall of 1933, Vassar College initiated two experiments in cooperative living. These initiatives, one in existing residence halls (Raymond and Main) and the other in a reconfigured Blodgett Hall, were part of an effort to help students lower their costs during the financial crisis of the Depression. Many Vassar girls were determined to […]


In 1865, President John H. Raymond gave a sermon in honor of the college’s opening. Such services continued to be held every September until 1914. Then, at the suggestion of Lucy Maynard Salmon, a convocation ceremony, with a procession of the faculty in academic regalia, was organized to formally open each academic year. The ceremony […]

Conversations about Vassar History with Historian Elizabeth A. Daniels

In 1995, Elizabeth Daniels asked me if I would be “willing” to engage in a series of video recordings in which she would tell me “all I’ve learned about Vassar.” I was both willing and honored to be asked, and we started that fall a series of taped interviews, patiently recorded by John McCormick, ranging […]

The Conservation Division

Founded in 1941, Vassar’s conservation division, an interdisciplinary graduate program, was funded by a generous gift from Dr. Helen Cordelia Putnam ’78, a pioneer in women’s and children’s health and in physical education. Professors from the botany, zoology, psychology and geology departments directed the program collaboratively, with five major goals: training graduate students in the […]

Ruth Conklin

Ms. Conklin’s research focused on circulation and respiration, especially in reference to the lymphatic system. When she returned to Vassar, she became Assistant Professor of Physiology, and continued to make contributions to her field. In the summer of 1931, Ms. Conklin traveled to Copenhagen on a Vassar Faculty Fellowship to study osmotic control of animals […]

Con Spirito

In early 1933, Mary McCarthy ’33, Elizabeth Bishop ’34, Frani Blough ’33 and sisters Eleanor ’34 and Eunice Clark ’33, created a rebellious, anonymous literary newspaper called Con Spirito. “It is really going to be good,” Blough prophesied before its publication, “a little shock at the Review! Nothing tame, arty, wishy-washy, ordinary or any of […]

Anne Cleveland ’1937

With a keen wit and distinctive visual style, Anne Thorburn Cleveland’s cartoons of life at Vassar during the 1930s give vibrant insight into college life in the mid-twentieth century.

Class Trees

A visitor driving through Vassar’s Main Gate today is likely to be as awed by the magnificence of the landscape as by the grandeur of Main Building, but this wasn’t always the case. The largest building in the country when it was completed in 1865, Main was set on an open, treeless plain, the site […]

The Class of 1951 Observatory

The Class of 1951 Observatory (1929) William Tubby Over the course of seven years, a fundraising event called the Campaign for Vassar raised $206,280,277. The largest fundraising campaign ever for a small liberal arts college, the solicitation was completed on June 30, 1996. Funds from the campaign would go to such projects as the Frances […]

Evalyn A. Clark ’1924

Historian and professor Evalyn A. Clark was one of Vassar’s most renowned and loved teachers. Her life, which spanned the twentieth century, was devoted to probing and understanding the history within her lifetime and innovatively sharing her knowledge with generations of students who found her a challenging and devoted teacher and mentor. Vassar played an […]

Eleanor Clark, ca. 1950

Eleanor Clark ’1934

In “The Art of Adventure” published in Vogue in 1953, Eleanor Clark wrote: “It seems safest to start by sticking one’s neck out and sounding as foolish as possible, which on this subject means confessing to an unalterable weakness for the word adventure.” Clark—an enterprising Vassar graduate, radical supporter of labor and leftist politics and […]

Civil War

Vassar College opened its doors in the fall of 1865, just five months after Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops at Appomattox Courthouse. As Vassar’s first students entered Main Gate, the country nursed its wounds and took the first steps toward national unity and the total emancipation of slaves. The Civil War and it repercussions […]

Emma Church

The case of Emma Church is a curious glimpse into the early history of Art at Vassar College. Not much is known about this mid-nineteenth century American artist. Before 1862 she emigrated to Rome, where she studied painting and earned a living by copying the works of the Old Masters which could be seen in […]

The Chronicle of the 1970s

For four years the magazine sought to serve “the internal life of the community, its values, intellectual involvement, poetry and prose.” However, by 1978 the opinion articles had steadily diminished, replaced by more literary submissions. The staff decided in February of that year to forgo further journalistic ventures and turn The Chronicle into a monthly […]

The Chronicle

The paper quickly gained a respectable readership, though former student and faculty member Elizabeth Daniels ‘41 recalls that the Chronicle “was thought of as a paper for conservatives.” In an editorial on March 17, 1944, the editors addressed this widespread belief, saying, “We shall deal with each issue according to our opinions at the time, […]

Clarence K. Chatterton

Clarence Kerr Chatterton, the creator of Vassar’s Applied Art (studio art) program, was born in Newburgh, NY, on September 19, 1880, to Charles L. Chatterton, a lawyer born of English parents, and Julia Lendrum Chatterton, the daughter of a mayor of Newburgh. Although they allowed him to study art in school, his parents did not […]

The Chapel

The Chapel (1904) Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge The Vassar Chapel, built in 1904 as a home for religious life on campus, represents a component of Vassar education from the college’s founding. Although the college was non-sectarian, religious observance at Vassar began in 1865 on the third and fourth floors of Main Building, where a portion […]

Elizabeth W. Champney

Elizabeth Williams Champney ’1869

Elizabeth Williams Champney, a graduate of the Vassar class of 1869, gained fame for her “Three Vassar Girls” novels. Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1850 to abolitionist parents, Champney moved to Kansas before the start of the Civil War. A member of Vassar’s second graduating class, she began her literary career with a mock-biblical account […]

Chairs of the Board of Trustees

The chair of the board shall be elected from among the trustees at the annual meeting for a four-year term and may be elected to a second consecutive term. Except as otherwise provided herein, the chair of the board shall preside at all meetings of the board and the executive committee of the board. The […]

Calisthenium and Riding Academy (Avery Hall, Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film)

The Calisthenium and Riding Academy (1866) John A. Wood As Vassar has expanded over its long history from a single, all-inclusive building to a campus of over 100 specialized structures—classroom buildings, residences, laboratory and recital spaces, libraries—it has demolished only two significant structures: Silliman and Farnsworth’s Vassar Brothers Laboratory (1880-1938) and Renwick’s entrance lodge (1865-1914). […]

Samuel L. Caldwell

When President John Raymond died in the summer of 1878, Samuel L. Caldwell was asked to step in from the Board of Trustees to become the third president of Vassar. Caldwell was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1820. After graduating from Waterville College (now Colby College) in 1839, Caldwell became the director of an academy […]

Mary Steichen Calderone ’1925

“What is a four letter word that ends with a “k” and means sexual intercourse?” Calderone liked to challenge young audiences. She answered the question: “It’s ‘talk.’” Nicknamed “the Grand Dame of sexual enlightenment,” Calderone was a charismatic and tireless advocate of sexuality education and promoted the principle that sexuality, as a vital part of […]

A Bust of Mary Somerville

COLLINGWOOD, Nov. 14, 1857. MY DEAR FATHER: This is Sir John Herschel’s place. I came last night just at dusk…. This declaration to her father had special meaning for Maria Mitchell. A decade after achieving sudden fame in 1847 with her discovery of a “telescopic” comet and her subsequent receipt of a gold medal from […]

John Burroughs

The renowned naturalist John Burroughs had a close, although informal, relationship with Vassar College. Burroughs, who lived from 1837 to 1921, was one of the “big five” of American naturalists. The others were Louis Agassis, John James Audubon, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. For more than thirty years he served as adviser and mentor […]

Lucy Burns ’1902

Co-founder for the National Woman’s Party, Lucy Burns ’02 was a leader of the militant-wing of the women’s suffrage movement. Known for her vehement fight for women’s right to vote and her resilience under opposition, Burns is also remembered as one of the early trailblazers in the movement for gender equality. Lucy was born on […]

Henry Buckham

Vassar’s first English Professor, Henry Barmby Buckham, taught rhetoric, belles-lettres, and English language in the college’s first year, 1865–1866. Although his time at Vassar was brief, Buckham proved to be a challenging professor who gave many of his students a strong foundation in writing and grammar. Born in March 1827 in Hinckley, County of Leicestershire, […]

Gertrude Buck

Born on July 14, 1871, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Judge George M. Buck and his wife, Annie, Gertrude Buck received all her higher degrees from the University of Michigan: a B.S. in 1884, M.S. in ’95, and a Ph.D in rhetoric and composition in ’98. She joined the Vassar faculty in 1897 as an English […]

A Brief Guide to Vassar’s Charter Trustees

Augustus L. Allen, a Poughkeepsie resident, served on the Board of Trustees until 1902. Martin Anderson, an editor and college professor, was born in 1815. Having studied at both Newton Theological Seminary and Waterville College (later Colby College), Anderson became a classics instructor in 1841. He served for two years as the editor of the […]

Marvin Breckinridge ’1927

Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson ’27 was born on October 2, 1905, to John Cabell Breckinridge, the grandson and namesake of Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge—Vice President in the Buchanan administration—and Isabella Goodrich Breckinridge, the daughter of American industrialist B. F. Goodrich. “My father,” she said later, “wished I would have been more conventional…. But my […]

Marcella O’Grady Boveri

Marcella O’Grady was born on October 7, 1863, in Boston, Massachusetts, into an affluent and liberal-minded family. Her parents, Thomas and Anne O’Grady (the former, a renowned Boston architect), strongly believed in the right of women to pursue an education and were a constant source of support and encouragement to Marcella, as well as to […]

Mary Borden ’1907

A novelist and wartime nurse, Mary Borden ’1907 was renowned for her successful literary career and service during both World Wars. Born in 1886 in Chicago, Mary was the daughter of businessman William Borden, who had fortunes in real estate, mining, and dairy products. Her mother, Mary Borden, was a devout evangelical Christian. In 1904, […]

Lydia Booth

While Milo P. Jewett has received most of the credit for inspiring Matthew Vassar to establish a women’s college, it was Lydia Booth, Vassar’s niece, who originally suggested the idea. Born in Poughkeepsie on March 17, 1803, Booth was the daughter of George Booth, a wool manufacturer, and step-daughter to Maria Vassar, Matthew Vassar’s sister. […]

Blood and Fire

Vassar’s ad hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam immediately embraced the moratorium. Sophomore Carla Duke ’71, along with Julie Thayer ’71 and Carolyn Lyday ’72, published four editions of a pro-moratorium “spontaneous publication,” Blood & Fire. The mimeographed two to four page issues had a small distribution, but they embodied the fervor and […]

Blodgett Hall

Blodgett Hall (1929) York and Sawyer More than most buildings on Vassar’s campus, Blodgett Hall has been a focal point of controversy. Built in 1929 with funds supplied by Minnie Cumnock Blodgett ’84 and her husband, the hall was intended to house Vassar’s new—and already contentious—euthenics program. Broadly defined as the “science of the controllable […]

Harriot Stanton Blatch ’1878

One of the most prominent Vassar suffragettes was Harriot Stanton Blatch (1878), the daughter of pioneering suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Blatch began her work on women’s voting rights in the U.S. after living in England for 20 years—where she worked with the Women’s Franchise League—forming the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women to help recruit working-class women to the movement.

Sarah Gibson Blanding

Sarah Gibson Blanding, Vassar’s sixth president and first female president, was a spirited figure who strongly advocated the professional, political, and academic place of women in the world. Her matter-of-fact views were sometimes controversially conservative; she once said: “The Vassar post is such a challenging job. I’m no feminist, but I’ve always had faith in […]

Bishop in the 1934 Vassarion, which she edited.

Elizabeth Bishop ’1934

The only child of William T. Bishop and Gertrude May Bulmer Bishop and born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911, Elizabeth Bishop suffered a difficult childhood. Her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother was institutionalized in 1916 with mental illness. When her mother died in May 1934, as Bishop […]

Alison Bernstein ’1969

A woman who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, Alison Bernstein was very much a product of her time—a woman who recognized the world’s problems and actively sought to fix them. Bernstein used her keen intellect and the tools she acquired in her time at Vassar to help others. From her time working in […]

The Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection at Vassar College

The Friendship of Albert Einstein and Otto Nathan One of the greatest waves of emigration from Germany occurred during the 1930s when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. Nearly 500,000 citizens fled their homeland, where the specters of militarism and Antisemitism loomed large. Jews, artists, professors, and others sought toleration abroad, particularly […]

Elizabeth Bentley ’1930

In the late 1940s, Elizabeth Bentley ’30 appeared in headlines across the country as she testified in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities at numerous investigations of alleged communists. Disregarded by some at the time as a pathetic, attention-seeking, and relatively insignificant figure, “something about her,” claims her biographer Kathryn Olmsted, “touched the fears […]

Benjamin Franklin Statue

The plaque below the statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of Sanders Physics Building reads “Given to Vassar College by J.P. Morgan at the request of Burges Johnson, Professor of English, 1915-1926.” The story of how Franklin’s likeness came to stand here is linked to how Burges Johnson came to Vassar. In 1914, working as […]

Ruth Benedict ’1909

From an early age, Ruth Fulton Benedict was an acute questioner of the world around her. In an early journal, the young Ruth wrote: The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers. There’s the answer of Christ and of Buddha, of Thomas à Kempis and of […]

Martha Beckwith

In 1920, Martha Beckwith became the first person to hold a chair in Folklore at any college or university in the country. The Folklore Foundation, established at Vassar with an anonymous donation by the naturalist, Annie Alexander, was an unprecedented institution. With its establishment, Vassar College suddenly became a center of research in the almost […]

Louise Seaman Bechtel, ca. 1920

Louise Seaman Bechtel ’1915

In an alumnae questionnaire circulated in 1952, Louise Seaman Bechtel was asked if she supported herself. Seaman Bechtel checked “no,” although she scribbled into the margin “but could!” The answer was befitting of Seaman Bechtel, for though she always took a large amount of pride in her role as a wife, she also ensured that […]

The Barefoot Fireflies

Most Vassar students recognize the sight. They walk on the Residential Quad, near Ballantine Field, or into the Villard Room and see some of their fellow classmates juggling, spinning fire, or doing acrobatics. A common presence on campus since the mid-1990s the Barefoot Fireflies established themselves as a Vassar staple in the 21st century. Known […]

Violet Barbour

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 5, 1884, to Thomas and Elizabeth Barbour, Violet Barbour received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D from Cornell University. In 1914 she was appointed to the Vassar faculty as a professor of English and European history. Initially an English history scholar, Barbour changed course midway through her career and became […]

Leila Cook Barber

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 4, 1903 to Courtenay Barber and his wife, Leila, Leila Cook Barber received a B.A. from Bryn Mawr and a M.A. from Radcliffe. She joined the Vassar faculty as an art instructor in 1931, and during her time at the college, she served as a member of the board […]

Dr. Alida Avery and “Vassar Thirty Years Ago”

In retirement in San Jose, California, in 1895 Dr. Alida Cornelia Avery, one of Vassar’s first two women to serve on the faculty, recalled the college’s opening days in the Los Angeles Herald. VASSAR THIRTY YEARS AGO (By Vassar’s First Resident Physician) It seems a far cry from the Vassar field day on November 9, […]

Autograph Books & Scrapbooks

Students pasted a wide variety of materials into their scrapbooks; newspaper articles about Vassar, programs from plays or concerts, and invitations to social events were some of the most common items.

Athletics, 1945–Present

Mid-Century Stagnation Field Hockey, 1970 Henry Noble MacCracken retired from the presidency in 1946. Sarah Blanding became the next president, and despite her history as a physical education teacher, under her tenure interest in athletics waned. Both the number of teams and the number of students playing on them dropped significantly. While in 1953 the […]

Athletics, 1865–1945

In the Beginning. . . Vassar’s athletic tradition began with the college’s foundation. In the nineteenth century, common speculation maintained that college attendance would lead to female infertility. Because the human body was a closed energy system, the theory ran, if women devoted too much energy to thinking, it would detract from their ability to […]

Interview with Winifred “Tim” Asprey ’38

S. Riane Harper ’09 interviewed Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Winifred Asprey on July 30, 2007 SRH: Ms. Asprey, thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your work and your career in teaching.  I know that you were raised in Iowa and that you graduated from Vassar in 1938.  Tell me a little about […]


The village of Arlington, an approximately one-square mile neighborhood in the Town of Poughkeepsie, was originally called Bull’s Head, after a local tavern dating from the Revolutionary War era. When Vassar opened in 1865 on the grounds that had formerly been the Dutchess County Club Horse Race Course, a variety of small shops that served […]


More than 230 species of trees now comprise the vast arboretum of the Vassar campus which began with the first plantings laid out by Matthew Vassar in 1865. The formal creation of the Vassar arboretum came from a gift from the Class of 1875.

Julia Coburn Antolini ’1918

At Vassar, Julia Coburn Antolini ’18 was known as much for her dedicated work as editor-in-chief of the Miscellany News as she was for her lighthearted practical jokes—on professors and then-president Henry Noble MacCracken. Her playful attitude as well as her reputation for outspoken journalistic rigor, sometimes used in critiquing the college, eventually earned her […]

Jean Anderson ’1933

Jean Anderson ’33 enjoyed two successful careers, first as a cartoonist who drew upon her experiences at Vassar and later as an obstetrician who was influential in popularizing the Lamaze method in the United States. Born on June 3, 1913, in Morristown, NJ, Anderson attended University High School in Ann Arbor, MI. A Presbyterian minister, […]

An Overview of Vassar Traditions

In her inaugural speech, president Sarah Gibson Blanding (1946-1964) observed that one time-honored Vassar tradition is “the tradition of changing with the changing times.” Very few of the original college traditions are still practiced today, and none are practiced in the same manner. Founder’s Day, for example, the oldest Vassar tradition, was first celebrated in […]

Alumnae House

Blanche Ferry Hooker, VC 1894, and Queene Ferry Coonley, VC 1896, were devoted Vassar sisters whose beneficence and sense of loyalty to Vassar shaped the future of alumnae relations with the college. Their early responses to Vassar’s financial and planning needs, and their support of President Taylor (1876–1914) and President Henry Noble MacCracken (1915–1946) were […]

Alumnae Gymnasium (Ely Hall)

Here’s to the new gym-na-sium Built by the enterprising alumDid we assist them?We’ll guess so-someHere’s to the new gym-na-sium. —1889 Student Yell Alumnae Gymnasium (1890) William Tubby Athletics may not come first to mind when Vassar is mentioned, but it has been well served in the history of the college’s buildings. The Calisthenium had been […]

The Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center

The ALANA Center (1993) Jeh Vincent Johnson The precursor to Vassar’s main organization for resources and programs to support students of color, what is now the ALANA Center, was once located in the basement of Lathrop House, a residence hall. The Center, however, introduced an integral—and, from its present location, visible—addition to the college’s campus […]

Ruth Adams ’1904

In 1903, during her junior year at Vassar, Ruth Adams assessed her room in a letter home: [My room] is on the 4th floor—it is a north room wher[e] I won’t get any sun, but it has a good big window so it isn’t very dark … it hasn’t a very pretty wall paper—a sort […]

Gorham Abbott and Vassar

“Where is the Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton for the education of females?” demanded Gorham Dummer Abbott, a clergyman, author, and the three-time founder of short-lived women’s colleges. He apparently spent his final years advising someone who also wished to take up the mission: Matthew Vassar.