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The Early History of Smith College

The Early History of Smith College

The early history of Smith College may seem like a far-off legend to some, being removed from the present era by some hundred years, but it is in those early years that the idea of Smith and the orchestration behind it was being formed, setting a foundation upon which many future generations could and did build.

Before her death (June 12, 1870) at age 73, Sophia Smith had been considering a number of plans for the dissemination of the great fortune that had been left her. The last surviving member of the Smith family, Sophia had already developed a reputation in Hatfield as a major philanthropist. In 1850 she donated $1000 to the Hatfield Church for a new organ1) , and she continued to make gifts to the community, such as a major donation to establish a chair for the Andover Theological Seminary in 1867 2) . Plans for her money can also be found in records for abandoned endeavors to donate money to Amherst College and to fund a school for the deaf, as surfaced in earlier drafts of her will 3). In the absence of action on Sophia’s part (and without knowledge of her nascent plans), Northampton citizen John Clarke began publicizing his own cause for a school for the deaf in 1867. Legend has it that Clarke paid a personal visit to Sophia and proposed that they establish the institute together, though this claim has little documented support.

The plans to establish a women’s college did not make it into the will until the last two drafts, in 1868 and 1870 (the first draft was written in 1861), though no doubt the idea was one that had been circulating for years. John M. Greene, advisor to Sophia Smith, records in his diary: “Feb. 12th, 1868. This afternoon Miss Sophia Smith has been into my study to confer with me about changing her will. The sum which she proposed to devote to a Deaf-mute instituition she thinks might better be devoted to the founding of a Woman’s College. Some weeks ago, soon after the publication of the Governor’s annual message in which he speaks very commendatorily of the Clarke Deaf-mute Institution in Northampton, I wrote her a letter advising the change. She thinks favorably of it and wants me to give her a plan for such a college. I hope to comply within two weeks.” 4)

By this time, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (to be named College in 1882) had been around for more than 30 years, and the “experimental stage” of women’s colleges had reached a peak. In 1875, there were around 100 higher education institutions for females all claiming similar traits (namely offering education equal to that to which men are entitled).5) Quentin Quesnell notes that Sophia would have undoubtedly been exposed to some of these debates. The publicity surrounding the creation of Vassar College began appearing in newspapers as early as 1861, the year Sophia received her fortune, and announcements appeared in newspapers such as the New York Tribune, which she is known to have read.6) A correspondence between John M. Greene and Sophia Smith highlights the intentions to keep the Smith College vision separate from Mount Holyoke (specifically regarding the house system and building arrangement): “[Smith] should not put the pupils into one large building as they do there. Mrs. Greene says very emphatically that the going up and down stairs is very injurious to the health of the Mt. Holyoke pupils. Instead of one large building there should be several small ones, or cottages, each cottage to accommodate 30 or 40 Pupils.” 7)

Some controversy erupted after Sophia’s death regarding the location of the College, which had been changed from Hatfield to Northampton in the two most recent versions of the will. The change, overseen by George W. Hubbard who served as Sophia Smith’s business advisor and lawyer, was not communicated to everyone, leading to confusion at the funeral service when advisor and pastor John M. Greene unknowingly spoke of the advantages of a college in Hatfield.8) Hatfield residents, who had been promised (or at least expected) a significant institution to enrich their hometown, were enraged, pushing the issue to a Northampton Probate court where Greene and Hubbard stood as witnesses. In this contest, the validity of the will was called into question, claiming it to be invalid, executed outside of the requirements of the law, under the “undue influence” of Mr. Hubbard, and even calling into question Sophia’s sanity: “3. The testatrix was not of sound and disposing mind at the time of the alleged execution.”9) The issue was resolved by December of 1870, and a charter for the college was approved by the Governor on March 3, 1871. 10)

The four years that followed—between chartering the College in 1871 and opening the institution for instruction in 1875—were focused on amassing the necessary funds to construct a main building, and searching for a suitable President to head the College. Motions were taken toward securing L Clark Seelye, then a professor at Amherst College, in July of 1872, but he declined the offer, content with his current work and wary of the success such a project would yield. 11) Moving forward, the Trustees issued a prospectus in September of the same year, explaining the mission and purpose of the college, to increase publicity and interest in the cause. Amherst Professor (and future Smith Greek Professor) William S. Tyler organized a meeting at Edwards Church in December 1872, at which he hoped influential men would be motivated to contribute money to the endowment. It was resolved that the town of Northampton would raise $75,000 for the erection of the first building of the college. 12) Speculations about the success of this project began to appear in local newspapers. A report of this meeting ran through Gazette and Courier, Northampton,13) and an article in the Hampshire Gazette pre-dating this meeting by a month speaks to general concerns regarding the struggles to find a President and adequate donors. The article concludes with an invocation to seize the opportunity while it is in grasp: “…there is so much interest felt in other parts of the State on the subject of higher education of women, that if Northampton fails to move and make this a College, there will soon be one erected elsewhere….One of the prominent citizens of this town says, that the women of Northampton can raise this money by subscription. We do not doubt it. It is an enterprise just suited to them. A word to the wise is enough. What will Northampton do?” 14)

Advances on Professor Seelye were made again in early summer of 1873,15) where he had become more open to the idea, and he was unanimously elected President at the annual meeting of the Trustees, June 17, 1873. Architects Peabody and Sterns presented building plans for the President’s House and academic building, which were chosen over the many competing architects for the role. An updated, detailed prospectus was released in October 1874 advertising the nature of the academic work proposed for the College. 16)

In May and June of 1875 the President’s House and College Hall were finished respectively, and on September 9 of that year, Smith College opened officially, celebrating its first class of fourteen students, selected on merit for their ability to pass the necessary examinations for admission. 17)

Smith College has now long outlasted the “experiment” stage, yet it could hardly be accused of following a trend. Over 100 years after the opening of the college, students still live in “houses”, and the community is committed to educating strong, intelligent women who will know their place in the world.

1) Quesnell, Quentin. The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith, 21
2) Quesnell, Strange Disappearance, 84
3) Quesnell, Strange Disappearance, 88
5) Quesnell, Strange Disappearance, 64
6) Quesnell, Strange Disappearance, 66
8) Seelye, Laurenus Clark. An Early History of Smith College, 1
9) Seelye, Early History, 4
10) Seelye, Early History, 6
11) Seelye, Early History, 12
12) Seelye, Early History, 15
13) Gazette and Corrier Northampton 10 December 1872 <>
14) “Smith College” Hampshire Gazette. 5 Nov. 1872 <>
15) Seelye, Early History, 18
16) Seelye, Early History, 21
17) Seelye, Early History, 36

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