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. From 1814 to 1815, she attended Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut, where she received rigorous academic and religious training. It was probably at Miss Pierce’s school that Booth acquired the intellectual interests that prompted her to suggest that her uncle establish an institution of higher education for women. Miss Pierce firmly adhered to the notion of “Republican Motherhood” which held that women are responsible for their children’s moral and intellectual instruction and thus should receive advanced education. Booth’s obituary in the Poughkeepsie Eagle noted that Miss Pierce’s instructions “left their ineffaceable influence in her [Booth’s] heart and life – her manners and purpose – through all her subsequent years.” After Litchfield, Booth returned to Poughkeepsie where she taught at a “Family School,” instructing her siblings and neighbors’ children. She then attended a finishing school in New York City.
In 1824 Booth moved to Virginia and taught in Tappahanock and Fredericksburg, returning to Poughkeepsie in 1837 to open what would later be called the Poughkeepsie Female Seminary. The seminary offered classes in algebra and geometry, subjects not usually offered at women’s schools of that time. When the seminary outgrew its first site, Matthew Vassar purchased a building on Garden Street where Booth established Cottage Hill Seminary, in which he took a spirited interest, visiting it often.
In 1845 Vassar traveled in Europe, examining a number of hospitals with the intention of establishing one himself when he returned to Poughkeepsie. In her correspondence with him, however, his niece urged him to establish a college for women instead. How, she asked, could women train their children if they did not have an education themselves? Vassar later attributed “the early direction of my mind for the enlarged education of women” to his relationship with his niece. Lydia Booth died on November 6, 1854, before her uncle, still intent on endowing a hospital, had taken any definite steps towards the establishment of a women’s college.
However, in the Spring of 1855, having come to Poughkeepsie from Alabama where he had established a similar institution, Professor Milo P. Jewett purchased and reopened Cottage Hill Seminary. Jewett joined the Central Baptist Church where Vassar worshiped, and Jewett soon suggested, apparently independently of Booth, that Vassar endow a college for women.
Because of Booth’s early encouragement of her uncle to establish a women’s college, Vassar’s legendary Professor of History Lucy M. Salmon called her “the real founder of Vassar College.” Vassar himself did not acknowledge Booth until well after the college’s founding when, in an address to the trustees on February 23, 1864, he set the record straight:
It is due to truth to say that my great interest on the subject of female education was awakened not less than twenty years ago by an intimate female friend and relative, now deceased, who conducted a seminary of long standing and character in this city . . . It was this fact, more than any other, and more than all others, that awakened me early to the possibility and necessity of an institution like the one we now propose.
Lynne Templeton Brickley, “Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy,” in To Ornament Their Minds: Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy, 1792–1833, ed. Theodore Sizer (Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Historical Society, 1993), 23, 72.
Lydia Booth Obituary, Poughkeepsie Eagle, 11 Nov. 1854, p.2, col.3.
Benson Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder (New York: CA Alvord Printer, 1867), 54-5, 81.
Lucy Maynard Salmon, “Lydia Booth,” Vassar Miscellany, 24 (January 1896): 156.
James P. Taylor, Before Vassar Opened (Boston: Houghton Mufflin Co., 1914), 87-88.
Matthew Vassar, Communications of the Founder, Feb. 23, 1864 (New York: Standard Printing and Publishing Company, 1886).
SR, CJ 2004, 2007