Skip to content Skip to navigation
Skip to global navigation Menu

Vassar Encyclopedia

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

Hunting Down Vassar History

Reflections by Elizabeth A. Daniels, ’41

In March 1984 when I was approaching my 64th birthday, I made a decision which changed my career path from Professor of English to Professor of English Emeritus and Vassar College Historian. I was lured by a paper trail. The paper trail of Vassar College, stretching from the past to the present, has always included materials which taken together illuminate the warp and woof of our 145-year old academic life. Considered as a whole, lack of appropriate storage space had resulted in accumulated deterioration and some loss of these materials. With this concern increasingly on my mind, I wrote a letter to President Virginia Smith, whose departure from the college was imminent, asking her if she would appoint me to a new post as Vassar historian. She did so, and also invited Nancy Sahli ’67, archivist at the National Archives, to come and make an appraisal of our problems in the area, suggesting possible remedies.

Unlike the present, twenty years ago the college had no official policy of saving institutional materials. We had a Special Collections Department with a curator, and a fine collection of books and manuscripts. When I wrote my letter to President Smith, I had just completed a semester’s leave, during which I edited for publication the manuscript of deceased chemistry professor Edward Linner. Linner’s subject was Matthew Vassar’s last ten years, those years during which he decided to found a liberal arts college for women and proceeded to do so. In order to prepare Linner’s manuscript for publication, I had to make several editorial decisions, not the least of which was whether to be faithful to the founder’s erratic spelling. Matthew Vassar employed as his clerk, scribe, and secretary James Schou, a man with many talents including beautiful penmanship and impeccable spelling. Schou, who was also the college’s first registrar (then called “recorder”), preserved with his beautiful calligraphy most of Matthew Vassar’s correspondence, which we are able to consult to this day in the Vassar archives. But many of the quotations that Linner employed in his text were transcribed just as Vassar himself wrote the words down in his own erratic handwriting and with variable spelling. The self-educated founder after all lived in the age of Webster’s Dictionary when spelling was more “fluid.” To check on the accuracy of Linner’s transcriptions of Vassar’s text, since Linner’s hand too was somewhat difficult to construe, I felt obliged to go to the sources Linner had used, which by then were in the Special Collections room in the Helen Lockwood Wing of the Thompson Library. Perhaps I was disconcerted also by learning about that time that Matthew Vassar, Jr, the nephew of the founder, had sold many of Matthew Vassar’s letters and papers to a ragman to get money for his estate. No wonder, for example, that neither Linner nor I could find any written communications at all between Vassar’s niece Lydia Booth, an early feminist who prodded him to start his college, and her uncle. Booth was the principal of a school for young women in Maryland. Perhaps there were no written communications between them on this seminal subject, but equally possible, had they existed, they may have been transferred to the rag-pickers’ cartload.

It was my exposure there in Special Collections in the 1980s to these fascinating Vassar College institutional documents of all sorts that fast “backwarded” me into the recesses of Vassar’s archival history. The tour continues to this November day in 2005 as I sit in my office in Maria Mitchell’s father’s living space in the Old Observatory, the first college building to be completed on the Vassar campus, since 1992 preserved as a National Landmark. This building is a significant place in which to develop my discussion, for it has provided me with an immediate example of what might happen over the years to artifacts and the paper trail of earlier days at Vassar. One day about two years ago, shortly before I moved into my office, I was asked to come to this building to examine something which had been discovered in an unused closet in Maria Mitchell’s classroom across the hall from my office. The closet had been mostly cleared of accumulated clutter, in preparation for new building tenants, thus exposing several shelves built into one wall of the closet, each divided into four sections. On the edge of each shelf were penciled ordered dates–1872, 1878, and so on–in Maria Mitchell’s handwriting. Gathering (surprisingly little) dust on the shelves were glass prints of sunspots. Fortunately Kathy Brown, Director of Academic Services, whose job it was to supervise the building’s renewal, knew what they were and together we were able to see to their transmission to the archives. Vassar Professor Emeritus Henry Albers mentioned in his “firsthand account of America’s first woman astronomer,” Maria Mitchell, a Life in Journals and Letters, that one of the student projects in Maria Mitchell’s astronomy class was “photographing the sun on every clear day.” On May 6, 1878, Mitchell herself wrote “between the clouds, Miss Spalding obtained 7 photographs of Mercury on the Sun. It is a comfort to me to be able to plan and do a new kind of work. The large telescope worked better than usual…” This recent example can take its place at the top of the scale of “saving objects.” Not only did Kathy Brown, the “saver,” recognize the photographs as part of Vassar’s treasured past, but she had them taken to the archives.

As the reader may already know from archivist Ron Patkus’s article on Vassar’s collections, describing rare books and manuscripts on the one hand and institutional papers, records, and artifacts on the other, Vassar’s institutional materials have come from many sources stretching back over the course of 140 years. Looking back now on my experiences, some of which have been thrilling to me, I can confidently suggest that my serendipity at finding objects and materials from the past has come about as a result of the foresight and providence of the “savers” who anticipated the possibility of future loss, neglect, and ignorance.

At various times before I asked President Smith to appoint me as Vassar historian, uneasy questions about saving and loss had arisen as I was contemplating my administrative duties. For example, when I was appointed Dean of Studies, my duties required frequent recourse to past student records in order that I might write accurate letters of recommendation for students as their career needs dictated. For students of the recent past, I was all set: we had in our office files the records of current students or those who had recently graduated. But soon after I plunged into my work, I was called upon to write about the record of someone who had graduated in the early 1900s. Upon consultation with Julia Bacon, the all-knowing Recorder (i.e. registrar), I learned that if I needed to consult student records earlier than those filed in my office, which only went back a few years, I must go down to Main basement, where earlier records were “kept;” the shifting meanings of the word “keep” are applicable to my theme. My career as Vassar historian really began the day I stepped onto the muddy floors of the basement of Main and found the “kept” records. In my own frame of reference, “the basement of Main” has come to invoke my personal experiences in tracking down materials over the last forty years.

Before the Buckley amendment of 1974 (FERPA) the Vassar folders containing comprehensive individual student records included letters of recommendation from high school teachers and miscellaneous papers, as well as the students’ school records. These were stowed away of necessity in the basement. The Recorder’s office kept a copy of the accumulated college record only. I do not have the impression that the deans who preceded me had often had recourse to the basement of Main, but they must have known about it. In any case I decided to make a trial run. The key to the basement of Main, along with other college keys, was closely guarded by the telephone operators in the front lobby of Main at that time. I signed out for the key and blithely said, “If I don’t come back in half-an-hour, send someone down to look for me, please.” I was really only joking. But it was an appropriate thought. My destination, I had learned, was at the north end of the long mud-and-occasionally-concrete corridor stretching the five hundred feet from the north end to the south end of the building, with dangling telephone wires along the low-ceilinged route, as well as slime, toads. and vermin underfoot. In the 19th century, this space had been in constant use and vital to the domestic economy of the college since it was the storage space for the college’s food and supplies.

No longer was that the case. Now most of these cave-like spaces were empty or contained miscellaneous debris. My goal was to find the records in a group of eight or nine rooms with heavy wooden doors at the north end of the corridor.

What I found was mind-boggling. In two or three of the rooms there were packing-boxes on shelves raising them above the dirt floor. The shelves extended to the ceiling, stacked perhaps five high. Through sampling, and examining labels, I began to think that these records were comprehensive and began to see that the sum-total would yield a full picture of students of Vassar through the ages. A follow-up visit with Dean’s office companions, a step-ladder, flashlights, and a supply of masks because of dust–fortunately in that case not mold or fungus–allowed me to surmise that here were the entrance records of all the students who had ever applied for admission to Vassar from the first years of the college. It was a treasure trove. Further investigation over the course of the next few weeks, with assistance of a student, revealed that the guess was not far off the mark.

In the folder of each student were letters of inquiry–often on the letterhead of the father’s business and almost never written by the student herself, or from the mother, making initial inquiry, and offering testimonials from clergymen or teachers. With the passing years, then decades, the contents of the folders changed, offering many more documents, and reflecting the march of time as hand written testimonials yielded to typewritten ones and then to school forms, and school forms yielded to college board reports, and the individual folders followed the student from application to the final outcome of graduation, or withdrawal. The folders were arranged chronologically in boxes (not acid-free of course) by various individuals who left their signatures in the form of initials. Remarkable consistency ruled the expanding operation from the beginning in the 1860s and ’70s to the 1970’s. Yet here we were in the 1980s, and almost no one of this generation except recent deans seemed to have heard of, let alone used, this hidden collection.

This treasure was recently accessioned only after the archives were opened in the late 1990s. Between 1985 or so, and the-mid 1990s, successive teams of Vassar students–eight or nine over the years– and I inventoried and replaced into acid-free boxes all the records. It was only at the end of the operation that the old boxes of records were hauled out of the basement of Main by the Custodial Department, who were long suffering with me for 20 years. Along the way, the records from the early years through 1926 (an educated although arbitrary choice on my part) were microfilmed, thanks to a grant from a foundation. This phase of the operation required arranging the papers in each box in chronological order. Fran Fergusson, who had succeeded Virginia Smith as president, encouraged our long, tedious operation and provided us with sufficient resources to do the job. When the basement operation on student records was completed, the old bakeshop in the basement of Jewett was provided with a dehumidifier and new shelving and the newly boxed records were moved in, along with twenty or so other kinds of records that I had collected from other offices and storage spaces. When the brand-new Archives opened in a new wing of the transformed library in the late 1990s, only some of the approximately 700 boxes could be accessioned, however. Others are in storage–once again, “safe” storage–accessible on call. The rolls of microfilm are now also available in the archives, as well as the paper records. The computer department had developed a primitive data program for me and my students, and we compiled an index of every paper saved when we were ready to do so. Since Vassar was the earliest endowed women’s college by ten years, these records provide a unique opportunity to study the progress of women’s education.

An encounter with Otis Waterman, (now retired) engineer in the Buildings and Grounds Department for many years, first warned me of other difficulties of saving institutional records. One day, perhaps twenty years ago, he invited me to accompany him to a room on the southeast corner of the fifth floor of Main, overlooking Avery Hall. There he introduced me to carefully rolled up architect’s drawings and draftsmen’s plans of Vassar Buildings. He had constructed bins for them and numbered them, tagging the numbers with identification of the buildings to which they related. What surprised me, though, was that the records had been stored in three other spaces in the building before they were moved there. A formidable accomplishment, but with each move, undoubtedly a loss or some deterioration! This large spacious room had been the last of three places in Main where the infirmary had been situated during the 19th century, before Swift was built in 1900 to be Vassar’s first freestanding infirmary. Waterman had apparently pieced together the collection’s provenance from studying these records and from information he gleaned from fellow members of his department (in this case and many others, oral history is of important use to the historian). After Waterman pointed these materials out to me, he had to move them again, this time out of Main because the space they were in was needed. This move shifted the drawings to what was referred to as “the telephone room;” namely, a room in an outbuilding back of Main where there were dangling phone cords and castaway equipment. That room was razed when the Fisher Passage was constructed in the 1990s, but before that happened, the records were transferred back to a concrete-floored room in the south basement of Main Building, where they were to remain under lock and key and in moderately safe condition. By then almost all of them needed restoration.

Matthew Vassar’s papers gifted to the college constitute the basis of the college’s institutional history as well as the detailed story of the founder’s own life. He kept letter books, diaries, a drawing of his desired tombstone monument in the shape of an acorn (his joke to the students: “big oaks from little acorns grow”). His correspondence with others was varied: personal letters, mortgage foreclosures, a book devoted to his dog Tip, comments on his health, his communications to the board of trustees delivered each year at the annual meeting ( “Progress is my motto,” he wrote shortly before he died). He left an unpublished manuscript: of his parents, “they were the first of the Family name that left their Fatherland and were induced to seek this new Western continent more for the love of civil and religious freedom than from any pecuniary consideration.” An autobiography tells us that he had typhus fever three times and had been “more than once at the verge of death.” His family had moved from one place to another in Poughkeepsie three times that he could remember, and he had gone to “Night School” to one Gabriel Ellison, a schoolmaster with a temper, who on one occasion disciplined young Matthew by striking him on the head with a ruler “flooring him.” At that, he recalled he got up and, “sent an Ink Stand at [the schoolmaster’s] Yellow Britches.” His father “dealt with him harshly,” his mother “interceded” and “to sum it all up,” he received almost no formal education thereafter. He married Catharine Valentine of Fishkill in 1813 and paid $40 a year for his house; his father rebuked him for his extravagance. Our chances of ever knowing more particulars about the courtship and marriage or other domestic details were sharply reduced when Matthew Vassar Jr., his nephew, not conscious of the needs of history, sold most of his uncle’s papers to a ragman after Vassar Sr. died, thereby increasing the value of the estate. Matthew Vassar dismissed the period of his life from 1815 to 1845 in one sentence in his autobiography as “filled up with the ordinary business relations with its various phases.”

The collection of materials goes on, with its counterpart–an eternal theme–running out of space. I was prompted to start an incremental on-line encyclopedia, after I took off my pseudo-archivist’s hat and fell back to my broader historian’s role of digging in to what I and others had collected, examining and trying to make sense of it. This current phase of my ever-expanding interest in the evolution of Vassar is the most enjoyable of all. But I have written this article to express my everlasting gratitude to all the Vassar people before me who resisted the temptation to empty their wastebaskets, and who saved judiciously for posterity.

Related Articles

EAD, 2005