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Vassar Encyclopedia

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

Banner image: Mary Augusta Jordan's graduation photograph.

Mary Augusta Jordan ’1876

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are grateful to Dr. Stephen H. Grant for this article on a distinguished member of the class of 1876. 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 of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

[Professor Mary Augusta Jordan’s] “brisk entry into the classroom; her quick settling in her chair; the petite figure in the dark, tailored suit, with a hair-line stripe and silk braid finish; the little ivory skull swinging from a gold pin above her watch pocket; the inscrutable face, with flashing eyes framed in a dark pompadour—an owl’s face. . . she seemed as wise as the Sphinx and as firmly based as the great Pyramid; she knew everything and she told me she had learned Sanskrit while waiting for the Hatfield House girls to come down for breakfast. . . she inculcated freedom of action. . .”

Mary Augusta Jordan
Photo: Courtesy Smith College Archives

This appreciation from one of her students at Smith College appears in a handwritten bound volume entitled, A Tribute of Forty Years, 1884–1924, to Mary Augusta Jordan. When Professor Jordan died in 1941, the minutes of the Smith faculty referred to her as “one of the most influential figures of the first half-century of the college’s history.” She served on key committees addressing student affairs and housing, and Smith President William A. Neilson categorically declared: “The most vivid personality on this campus was Miss Jordan.” He recognized Jordan for “the quality of her mind and the sheer force of her personality.”

The first of Edward Jordan and Augusta Ricker Jordan’s three daughters and one son was born in Ironton, Scioto County, Ohio on July 5, 1855. Born in New Hampshire, Augusta had followed her brother Ebenezer to Ironton where he was operating an iron furnace when she met Edward. Son of a Baptist minister with Maine roots, Edward Jordan became an attorney and campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. After the election, he received an appointment as solicitor in the Treasury Department, and moved his young family to Washington. Among Mary’s significant early memories was holding President Lincoln’s hand as they watched Union soldiers walk by. With his Kentucky accent, the president called her father “Jerdan,” Following the Lincoln assassination, Jordan helped to identify a pair of riding boots as those belonging to John Wilkes Booth.

After living for a few years in Flushing, Long Island, the Jordan couple finally established their home in a comfortable neighborhood on North Broad Street in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Jordan commuted to Manhattan where he worked in a law firm. The Jordan family provided an intellectually stimulating home environment for their children. Despite suffering financially from the Panic of 1873, the Jordans gave their daughters the best educational opportunities. All three––Mary, Emily, and Elizabeth––attended Miss Ranney’s preparatory school in Elizabeth.

Mary Augusta Jordan’s graduation photograph.

In 1872, Mary became a member of the seventh class to enroll at Vassar College, and Elizabeth and Emily followed their older sister in 1875. Emily and Elizabeth became teachers, ceasing only upon marriage, as was required at the time. Their brother, Francis, practiced law in New York City, without the benefit of higher education. By valuing so highly their three daughters’ schooling, the parents displayed a rare anomaly at the time. Mary’s academic transcript reveals her exceptional performance. In her junior and senior years, her grades in Latin, English composition, Rhetoric, Literature and Criticism, Moral Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, Logic and Political Economy, Chemistry, and German were five out of five. As the Vassar Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa—the first granted to a women’s college–was inaugurated in 1898, she received her key retroactively.

Upon graduation from Vassar in 1876 in a class of forty-six women, Mary became the Vassar Librarian. In 1878 she earned a master’s degree in English. In 1880, she was hired as a “critic” in the English Department. In 1884, President L. Clark Seelye of Smith who was also an English professor, lured Mary away from Vassar to become assistant professor in rhetoric and Anglo-Saxon. His Northampton friend Julia Ray, the former Lady Principal at Vassar, had told him, “Go over to Vassar and get Miss Jordan. She is little, but she is fierce.” “He got me,” Jordan recalled nearly 40 years later, “I was still little, but I felt anything but fierce on a snowy morning in January…before my first classroom exercise.”

Before she signed a contract, Seelye asked whether she was engaged to be married or likely to become so. Then, a married woman would not have been able to teach at Smith. Mary never married, although for a while she was engaged to her first cousin, David Starr Jordan, who became the first president of Stanford University. Mary was attractive and feminine, comfortable with men and supremely able to hold her own among them.

Mary Jordan spent thirty-seven years at Smith, becoming full professor and head of the English Department in 1906. A well-known and respected––sometimes beloved, sometimes feared––campus fixture, she served as informal advisor to Smith’s first three presidents. A brilliant conversationalist and fiercely independent, she spoke her mind freely and was known for her sharp tongue.

A prolific author, Professor Jordan wrote eight books, including Correct Writing and Speaking. She edited Milton’s Minor Poems, Emerson, Selected Essays, and Speech of Edmund Burke on Conciliation with the Colonies. In articles, she analyzed Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat and wrote commentary on an unpublished letter of William James. She gave a talk on Thomas Hardy at Amherst College, and spoke on the subject of higher education to the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Responsible for teaching Shakespeare at Smith, she wrote “Shakespeare and the Presumptions.” A stickler for proper use of the English language, she published “Assets and Liabilities of Present-Day English.”

Mary Jordan held her classes spellbound. Pert and stylishly attired, with small hands and feet, she sat elegant and low behind her desk. Her bird-like black eyes flashed up and down the rows. She started by giving a running commentary on current events, turned deftly to raising provocative considerations on human nature, and then, perhaps, addressed the subject of the course, be it Dryden or Pope. She would pause. “What are your thoughts?” she queried. She encouraged honesty and free expression of opinions.

Few Smith students passed up at least one opportunity to be exposed to “Jordie.” They later recalled their class “in Miss Jordan” rather than in the course title. She candidly declared that the two most serious flaws among her students were lack of originality and lack of thoroughness. One of her virtues as a teacher was the ability to motivate students to self-criticism. While she could momentarily be devastating in her appraisals, she believed in her core in constructive criticism. She cared genuinely about her students’ well-being and intellectual integrity, and she knew how to avoid injuring their self-confidence. Among those who testified to benefiting tremendously from her teaching were students who later embraced a writing career. When Smith students responded strongly to a solicitation from the college to strengthen the resources of the English Department, Jordan wrote an impassioned letter of gratitude to the class of 1891, declaring that “the cockles of my heart swelled with encouragements.”

MAJ (far left) and students from the class of 1890 ready for a hiking trip. (Courtesy, Smith College Archives)

Mary Jordan lived in a college house her entire time at Smith. Her predominant abode was Hatfield Hall, a dormitory before it was turned into classrooms. Her vast working library was open to all students, at a time when the college library, from which students were not allowed to remove books, was closed in the evening. The diary she kept in 1899 records her pattern of serving tea to students, attending dinners at various Smith houses, and returning to receive students in her library again. She kept regular office hours, counseling any student, and particularly taking care of agitated first-year students suffering from anxiety.

Mary Jordan kept a scrapbook of her trip to England and France on the Red Star Line in 1884. She toured the Antwerp Cathedral, was awed by Napoleon’s tomb, and glimpsed a Shakespeare first folio. In 1907, she made a scrapbook to cheer up a youngster named Harriet Sleeper who had fallen ill. She cut out magazine pictures of American authors: Holmes, Longfellow, Stowe, and Alcott; of famous buildings: the U.S. Capitol and St. Paul’s cathedral; of historical figures: Jesus and Napoleon. Sleeper recovered, several years later attending Smith and becoming a teacher.

While a strong force in training young women to be independent, analytical, and self-confident, curiously Mary Jordan did not advocate giving women the vote. In an article “Noblesse Oblige” she wrote, with some ambiguity, “the ballot is superfluous for women because their interests are indissolubly bound up with those of civilized society. It is superfluous because women always have accomplished, do now bring about, and always will effect more without it that it has ever compassed.” Contemporary Smith College students were exposed to different views on suffrage in club debate and from a second English professor named Mary Augusta. Professor Jordan often sparred with Mary Augusta Scott, a Vassar classmate, who taught Anglo-Saxon and the history of the English language for twenty years at Smith. Armed with a PhD from Yale she had obtained in 1894, Mary Augusta Scott often challenged the other Mary Augusta on academic and social issues.

Before becoming president of Vassar College in 1915, Henry Noble MacCracken briefly taught English and Drama at Smith. In his memoir The Hickory Limb, he noted that departmental meetings were famously punctuated by opposing views argued by the two colleagues, each starting her intervention with the words, “Mary Augusta, you are mistaken.”

During her teaching career and in retirement, Mary Augusta Jordan maintained high prestige in college circles. 1896, when Smith was celebrating the centennial of the birth of Sophia Smith––who had endowed in 1870 a new college for women––Mary Jordan was selected to give the faculty address. In 1910, when the college commemorated the thirty-seven years of service of its first president Reverend L. Clark Seelye, Mary Jordan was chosen to write the preface. In 1915, she wrote in the Vassar Miscellany a few well-crafted pages to introduce Vassar President-Elect Henry Noble MacCracken.

In the same year, marking the college’s first fifty years, Jordan delivered a talk on “Spacious Days at Vassar,” in which she looked back on her academic experience forty years earlier as a “child of the generation after the Civil War.” Jordan interpreted “space” as an illuminating presence of forces, as opposed to a haze of materialism that greeted the students. She triumphed in the social justice a women’s college represented. Admitting that few student activities existed at the time, she reminded her audience that students virtually lived with the faculty, in an atmosphere described by Emerson as a “circle of godlike men and women.” Jordan complimented the college for its lack of rigidity, and spoke in laudatory terms of Vassar’s intellectual exhilaration from the stimulating company of faculty and outside speakers. Among the latter, she singled out Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louisa May Alcott, Phillips Brooks, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Julia Ward Howe.

Smith College presented an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters to Jordan at its 1910 commencement, “In recognition of her long and distinguished service as professor of English and English Literature,” and Syracuse honored her with a doctorate of Pedagogy in 1921. Jordan House, one of Smith’s residential houses, on the Smith campus was named for her in 1922, and Smith offers the Jordan Prize for original composition and maintains a Jordan chair of English Language and Literature.

In 1921, Mary Jordan retired to New Haven. She joined the Business and Professional Woman’s Club. In 1925, Smith College hired her to write “Teaching of English in Smith College from President and Professor Seelye to President and Professor Neilson.” A visitor to her small apartment on College Street reported that books overflowed every room and onto a shelf above the edge of the bathtub. She was known as an eccentric, and a collector of historical items she picked up at local auctions. Visitors commented on her collections of new shoes and old furniture. She rendered her lodging “exotic” by keeping orchids.

Mary Augusta Jordan gave the first fellowship for a researcher at the Folger Shakespeare Library when it opened in 1932. The Library had been the dream of Emily and Henry Folger as they collected Shakespeariana for forty years and designed a building one block from the Capitol to house the literary treasures. After Henry died suddenly in 1930, Mary Augusta spent a great deal of time with her sister Emily, visiting Washington and the Folger home in Glen Cove, Long Island. Emily died in 1936, Mary Augusta five years later.

Related Articles

External Links


Mary Augusta Jordan, “Life and the Classroom: Thirty-Seven Years of It,” Smith Alumnae Quarterly, July, 1921.

Folger Shakespeare Library Archives

Smith College Archives

Vassar College Special Collections

Elizabeth A. Daniels

S G 2009