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. Abbott never accomplished his life’s ambition. The Mount Vernon School for Girls, the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies and the Spingler Institute all closed within his lifetime, but he apparently spent his final years advising someone who also wished to take up the mission: Matthew Vassar.
Gorham Abbott was born on September 3, 1807, to Jacob and Betsey Abbot in Hallowell, Maine. A graduate of Bowdoin College in 1826, he attended the Andover Theological Seminary and in 1837 was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. During his theological studies, with his brother Jacob he opened in Boston the Mount Vernon School for Girls. Later, while living in New York City, he founded the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies, and, upon its closure in 1848, he took forty of its students into the newly established Spingler Institute for Girls.
Compared to other women’s institutions at the time, the Spingler Institute, despite its religious status, received widespread praise for the intellectual rigor of its curriculum. Abbott himself insisted that the students’ educations there be “equal to those of our sons.” Spingler students were self-governed, and no punishments were meted out. The school also had expansive athletic facilities where students were encouraged to engage in sports and other physical fitness activities. Despite its extensive coverage in the New York City press, apparently due to its low enrollment, the Spingler Institute closed its doors in 1858. Its closure was a significant financial setback for Abbott, who was also to lose money during the Civil War.
Around this time Abbott began to meet and share his recent plans for a women’s college with Matthew Vassar as he and his trustees planned the charter for Vassar College. Abbott’s secretary, Mrs. Alma E. Curtis, recalled the meetings between the two men. “I well remember,” she said, “Mr. Vassar’s frequent visits and the long talks in the study. For years Mr. Abbott had had in mind to establish a College for girls that should be as well-endowed as those for boys, and had drawn plans for all details, which he gave to Mr. Vassar.” Mrs. Curtis recalled that Abbott said to Vassar, “Means for which I have been laboring for this object are gone; with them health and spirits for the undertaking. You, Mr. Vassar, have both. Take all my plans and good will for your success.” As Curtis’s recalls, Mr. Vassar is lively and jesting. He asks if he can take Abbott’s fine secretary along with his plans. At several different points in her recollection, Alma Curtis connected Abbott’s plans for a university with Vassar’s project: “So the university was merged in Vassar College, and the school went on its way, fulfilling its ideals,” she said in 1898. In 1902 she said, “Mr. Abbot surrendered to Mr. Vassar his plans for founding a college for girls.” The actual deeding of the plans (the exact content of which has not been determined) was performed after the chartering, in 1861, of Vassar but prior to the school’s opening.
Gorham Abbott was also in correspondence in the 1850s and 1860s with a number of other men interested in higher education for women—among them Henry Fowle Durant, the co-founder of Wellesley, and Milo Jewett, the first president of Vassar College. Jewett, in 1861, had asked Abbott to provide opinions on a range of topics related to women’s education. Abbott, his secretary recalled, “answered Jewett’s questions in short, pithy sentences” and cited the Spingler Institute as a representation of his ideas for women’s education.
Gorham Dummer Abbott died in South Natick, Massachusetts, on August 3, 1874, at the age of 66. In its obituary, New York’s Outlook magazine noted the influence he had upon Vassar College: “Mr. Abbot was a friend of Mr. Matthew Vassar, the founder of Vassar College, and it is said, by those who know, that, laying out the lines upon which Vassar should be established, Mr. Vassar consulted Mr. Abbot frequently, and received from him models and sketches that had been elaborated with great precision and care during a period of twenty years or more—a gift which Mr. Vassar considered of great value.” The New York Tribune’s obituary placed the relationship in a similar light: “at a late period it was his fortune to be brought into contact with Matthew Vassar, of Poughkeepsie, and from that meeting grew in time the idea of Vassar College.”
Abbott’s nephew, Lyman Abbott, a minister and a frequent speaker at Vassar, also traced, in a eulogy, his uncle’s connection to Vassar and other scholarly institutions. “Those who walk in wisdom like Abbott,” he said, “build for our pyramids a Vassar College, a Lennox Library, a Cooper Union.” He also stated that what Abbott “saw in a vision,” Matthew Vassar “in our own state…has made real.” Attributing the very idea for Vassar College to Gorham Abbott, he declared, “When the great teacher could no longer place his College on a firm foundation, his plans were deeded to Matthew Vassar.”
At a Spingler Institute reunion some years later, Lyman Abbot cited his uncle’s “joy in the surrender of his plans to Matthew Vassar, and his delight in the founding of Vassar College,” and was full of praise for the unveiling, in 1902, of a scholarship in Abbott’s name at the college he “helped found.” Traveling to deliver the commencement address at the Ely School, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor, also in attendance at the Spingler event, spoke of Gorham Abbott’s influence in Vassar’s founding. He characterized Matthew Vassar as burdened by his great wealth hoping to launch a charitable endeavor, but unsure where to look. Curiously, Taylor didn’t mention the influence on Vassar’s developmental decision of Vassar’s niece Lydia Booth and the foundation, in 1850, of the American Women’s Educational Association, by Catharine Beecher, expressed, at Vassar’s request in 1867 by founding trustee Benson J. Lossing in Vassar College and Its Founder. It was at this time, Taylor said, that Vassar met Abbott and became interested in female education. “Many a conference they had together,” he said, “and it was a notable meeting of two men with widely different gifts—Mr. Vassar, a plain man of business, without the advantage of liberal education; Mr. Abbot, gifted, cultured, inspired with high purpose, but lacking abundant means.” Taylor corroborated Mrs. Curtis’s relation that Abbott passed his cherished plans to Matthew Vassar, and stated “Hence it may be said that Vassar College is the gift of Mr. Abbot’s heart to Mr. Vassar’s, and from Mr. Vassar to the world.” He continued to note the positive influence of Abbott on Vassar’s personal character, as he became someone with ambitions, ideals, and grand purpose after receiving this inspiration. President Taylor concluded his speech by listing the similarities of the Spingler Institute and Vassar College: “the broad lecture courses, the prominent place of art in education, the fine picture galleries…the library work in literature, the musical departments,” as well as the Christian influence that the religious Spingler Institute and unsectarian Vassar shared. Taylor also praised the geographic diversity of students at both institutions.
Vassar College appears to have been a popular point of discussion at the Spingler reunion event. Upon the announcement that Spingler graduates would fund a scholarship at Vassar in Abbott’s honor, a professor at the Hampton Institute, Helen Ludlow, reflected, “And I am very glad to see Vassar College named in your circular of invitation as the appropriate place for the establishment of such a memorial—especially glad since I have learned your discovery of the direct, broad-hearted part Mr. Abbot took in connection with the founding of that institution, which, as you have said, was the first to carry out the great desire of his heart for the collegiate education of women on the most liberal scale, which is still so grandly carrying it forward. In Mr. Abbot’s generous bequest of his good will to Vassar, may we not feel our own pledged to it in a sacred, delicate trust.” The Reverend Henry J. Van Dyke, also in attendance, described “Mr. Abbot’s launching of the bark of higher education for girls in New York City, a frail craft bound for a perilous voyage, passing through many dangers, until today it floats secure and strong, a grander vessel—Vassar College.”
At another Spingler reunion event, one not graced by the presence of any Vassar luminaries, Spingler alumnae read letters from Vassar professors, one of which stated that Vassar is the “heir of Spingler in its religious life.” Another nephew, Edward Abbott, noted at this event that “the part which Dr. Abbot took in the inception of Vassar College is now a matter of acknowledged though unwritten history. It is not too much to say that he was one of the founders of higher education for women in this country.”
In 1902, 40 years after Vassar College’s founding, former students and associates of Abbott formalized the Abbott Memorial Fund, a posthumous scholarship ($8,000 for one year of classes) awarded to one incoming Vassar freshman each year. Priority was given to graduates of the Spingler Institute. The creation, in 1912, of the Abbott Memorial Book, a record of Gorham Abbott’s accomplishments, was another product of the Abbott Memorial fund to which President Taylor contributed. The book, which does not have a listed author but rather attributes itself to the many benefactors of the memorial fund, notes particularly the regard Taylor had for Abbott’s legacy: “[Taylor] spoke very tenderly of Mr. Abbot, the knowledge of whose work had come to him through his sympathy with the aims and hopes of the Abbott Memorial Committee. From an acquaintance with the new heirs he had grown to feel himself in sympathy with this grand pioneer in the work of higher education for women.”
Although the scholarship is no longer in effect, Gorham Abbott’s influence still lingers at Vassar. A James Smillie painting in the Frances Lehman Loeb Center is a donation from Abbott’s personal collection. Indeed, the very existence of this gallery may stem from Abbott’s influence: “Vassar’s intention to use an art gallery for aesthetic instruction was not unprecedented, either: Again, such use of art objects can be found in an institution for girls, in particular that one administered by the Presbyterian minister Gorham D. Abbot” state the findings of the 1983 Dutchess County Tercentenary Conference. This conference also comments on the mystery of the potential two minds behind Vassar College: “Though frequent mention is made of the contact between these two men, without knowing exactly when they met, it is impossible to determine the extent of Abbot’s contributions to Vassar College.” To know the extent may indeed be impossible, but to place Gorham Abbott among the two or three influences behind Matthew Vassar’s enduring legacy seems necessary indeed.
The Abbot Memorial Book (New York: The Abbot Memorial Committee, 1902).
“The Abbot Scholarship,” New Outlook, Volume 63, 1899.
“College News,” Vassar Miscellany, 1 January 1902.
“An Educational Memorial,” New Outlook, Volume 70, 1902.
“The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center: James Smillie, The Voyage of Life—Childhood.” Collections – Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center – Vassar College, emuseum.vassar.edu/view/objects/asitem/92/55/classification-asc?t%3Astate%3Aflow=51f52f01-e9bc-4beb-9d36-eb6a8b67d754.
Ghee, Joyce C.; Kaltz, Melodye; McDermott, William; and Wiles, Richard. “Transformations of an American County: Dutchess County, New York—Papers of the Tercentenary Conference,” (New York: Gannett Foundation, 1986).
“Gone but not forgotten: Spingler girls would honor the memory of the Abbots,” New York Tribune, 18 December 1898.
The Milo Jewett Papers, Folder 1.3, Vassar College Special Collections.
Monmonier, Mark; Atterberry, Adrienne Lee; Fermin, Kalya; Marlzolf, Gabreille E.; and Hamlin, Madeleine, “A Directory of Cartographic Inventors; Clever People who were Awarded a US Patent for a Map-related Device or Method” (Amazon and Syracuse, New York: Bar Scale Press, 2018).
“Personals,” Vassar Miscellany, 1 January 1902.