August 29, 2017 – 7000 words
Becoming Barnard, II: A Place in the City
- Inventing a College Life
- Schlepping to Barnard
- “Not a New Yorker”: The Misbegotten Gill Deanship
- Barnard & Its “Hebrew Problem”
- Firebell in the Night
Barnard College graduated its first class of eight seniors in May 1893 with appropriate fanfare. Joseph H. Choate wrote of the occasion to his wife the trustee Carline Dutcher Choate, who was out of the City. “Last night’s Post has such an excellent account of the first Commencement of the Barnard girls that I have cut it out and enclose it. Mr. Brownell tells me that they made a great sensation as they appeared upon the stage and were received with overwhelming applause.” That fall, 106 students (59 regulars, 47 “specials”) returned to the rented Madison Avenue campus ready to continue the work begun by the college’s first graduates in fashioning an extra-curriculum.
- Inventing a College Life
The first students to enter Barnard in the fall of 1889 consisted of 14 young women who had passed the entrance examination and became members of the Class of 1893, plus 22 “specials,” non-degree candidates who had not taken the entrance examination and registeredg for one or two courses. Of that first class, 8 stayed on to graduate in the spring of 1893. That same fall Barnard its fifth academic year with a total enrollment of 106 students, nearly half of them (47) non-degree specials. Of the 59 degree candidates, 7 were to stay on to graduate in 1894, another 8 in 1895.
These early numbers were problematic on two counts: the small size of the first graduating classes and the absence of a discernible upward trajectory. Equally concerning was the heavy dependence upon non-degree “specials,” who were initially expected to be accepted only until four regular classes were in place and then were to be eliminated. Their continued presence in numbers, a matter of financial exigency, allowed the negative inference that Barnard’s academic standards were lower than other women’s colleges that admitted only degree-pursuing students. Yet the persistence of “specials” after the move to Morningside again becoming a majority of all enrollments reflects Barnard’s continued dependence upon such “drop-in” students and their problem attracting full-timers in numbers. It was not until 1900 that regular enrollments again exceeded “specials” and not until 1905 – by which time Barnard had graduated thirteen classes — that specials made up less than one third of all enrollments. [ “Specials” were not totally eliminated until 1927, not coincidentally one suspects, the same year Barnard became a founding member of the prestigious Seven Sisters College Conference.]
Given that the 200 or so students enrolled at Barnard during its first eight years on the East Side all commuted to school, with upwards of a third of them part-time “specials,” created even a semblance of college life outside the classroom is impressive. Yet they did. During the second year of operations, an Undergraduate Association was created which provided the College with a student government. A year later, the first chapter of a Greek national fraternity, Kappa Kappa Gamma was established. (More on Barnard fraternities in Ch. 4.) In 1894, the College’s first yearbook, Barnard Annual was published, succeeded three years later by the Barnard Mortarboard . The first issue of the college’s campus newspaper, Barnard Bulletin, appeared on January 4, 1901. By 1904 students had formed intramural teams in basketball, tennis and ping pong; subject-related clubs included the Greek Club (1894), La Societe Francaise, Deutscher Kreis and the Botany Club; religious organizations included the Barnard College Young Women’s Christian Association and a chapter of the Church Students’ Missionary Association; musical groups included the Barnard Chorus and the Mandolin Club; social service organizations included a chapter of the College Settlement Association; literary undertakings included The Barnard Bear. The invention of an early student life at Barnard reached its imaginative highpoint in 1903 when the sophomores of the Class of 1905 challenged the incoming freshman of the Class of 1906 to a series of athletic contests in what came to be known as the Greek Games. These were thereafter faithfully repeated every spring for the ensuing seven decades.
However impressive the range of its extra-curricular activities, the early Barnard collegiate experience remained fundamentally different from that of the other women’s colleges – and other “country” colleges in general – in the absence of a residential component. This difference was made all the more glaring for some by the fact that a year after the move to Morningside, with the opening of Fiske Hall in 1898, some fifteen Barnard students from outside New York did approximate life at a residential college by boarding in the temporarily unoccupied top floor. The experiment lasted only two years before the space was given over to a planned laboratory, but not before the experiment had prompted two different reactions. Trustee Henrietta Talcott, on the basis of a single visit, declared the dormitory “a godless place,” while trustee Augusta Arnold agreed, complaining that there were “no limits to the hours that the girls could dance.” But once the experiment ended, trustee Annie Nathan Meyer, while declaring herself in a 1904 letter to Treasurer Plimpton no fan of country colleges with their extensive residential quarters conveying “a sense of self-importance, or of mental isolation, or eccentricity,” lamented the closing of the temporary dormitory, it having “succeeded in attracting the finest women from all over the country. To be obliged to shut the doors on them was undoubtedly a very serious blow to Barnard.” She closed her letter with a plea: “Do get us a gift of a dormitory. I am sure you will, you have never failed us as yet in any of our great needs.”
The ever resourceful Plimpton had already set his sights on Mrs. Anderson for just such a gift. Although she had never attended college, Anderson had taken to heart the calls of the Smith-alumna Dean Gill and maybe those of the Vassar alumna Mrs. Liggett of the importance of a dormitory if Barnard was ever to compete with the country colleges for the daughters of New York’s well-to-do families. (Her own daughter, Eleanor, a Brearley graduate, had opted for Bryn Mawr over Barnard.) Anderson’s purchase in 1901 of the 3 acres of land between 116th and 119th Street, contiguous with and immediately to the south of the original site, was intended as the future site for Barnard’s first dormitory, which she likely expected other trustees would come forward to underwrite. When none did and Mrs. Meyer took it upon herself to interest the Guggenheim family in making a naming gift of a dormitory, Mrs. Anderson shortly thereafter announced her third major gift to the college. This was one of $150,000 for a dormitory to be named after the Reverend Arthur Brooks, chair of the original board of trustees until his death in 1894 and the birthright Baptist Anderson’s spiritual counselor at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.
The building that became Brooks Hall was sited on the southern edge of the ”Milbank Quadrangle” with its back to 116th St., its front facing inward). It was not just another utilitarian college dormitory. The historian Helen Lefkowiz Horowitz, in her illuminating Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (1984) described it this way:
Designed as an urban residence by Lamb & Rich. The architects of Barnard’s first
buildings, Brooks Hall rose nine stories in brick and limestone to match the Milbank
group some distance away. Built on a steel skeleton, it was a vertical rectangle. A
handsome portico fitted with white limestone columns, an ornamental cornice, and bay
windows kept Brooks from looking severe.
Brooks consisted of eight upper floors with outward- facing rooms and suites to accommodate just 97 students, with interior public rooms on each of the upper floors and on the first floor abutting the elegant main entry. Mrs. Anderson selected the much-in-demand Elsie de Wolfe, who had decorated of the Andersons’ 5th Avenue apartment and countless other East Side homes, to decorate its public spaces. They were to have, DeWolfe assured her client, referring to New York’s most fashionable women’s club, “gilt applique like [the] parlor and tea room at [the] Colony Club.”
Room rents in Brooks varied significantly. Yet even the smallest double rooms rented for $160, while the suites, which consisted of two rooms, a private bath and fireplace, went for a princessly $1000. Board was fixed at $500 per year, making the total cost of residence several multiples of tuition and substantially higher that of any of the other women’s colleges. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz writes perceptively that the opening of Brooks Hall “began Barnard’s partial transformation into a women’s college along the lines of Vassar or Bryn Mawr.”
The opening of Brooks Hall in the fall of 1907 was clearly intended to attract wealthy applicants, both New Yorkers with the resources to live independently of their parents and those from beyond the city who could afford luxurious on-campus housing. But the fact that four years after Brooks’s opening the dormitory had yet to be fully occupied with undergraduates suggests that its success in altering the social composition of the student body was limited. Instead, Barnard rented suites in Brooks to Columbia female graduate students and offered them to Barnard female instructors as part of their compensation. When in 1913 full occupancy by undergraduates was finally achieved, it did so only after the introduction of resident scholarships explicitly designed to attract out-of-state applicants. Barnard, it seemed, if it was to get the out-of-town girls it wanted, would have to buy them.
- Schlepping to Barnard
When Barnard was first located on Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s East Side, it constituted one of the many East Side cultural institutions located within walking distance of the residences of most of New York City’s wealthiest families. Situated about half way up the island, the College was also accessible by trolley car from other parts of Manhattan. Students coming from the as yet unincorporated boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens required the additional services of a ferry across the East River, those from the Bronx and lower Westchester County a bridge across the Harlem River, and those from northern New Jersey ferry service across the Hudson. Those attending Barnard during these years with the longest commute hailed from the eastern-most reaches of Queens, from whence they faced complicated commutes, typically involving a combination of ferry, trolley car and in the case of students coming from Long Island, the services of the Long Island Railroad. But whether a leisurely five-minute walk or an arduous two-hour slog, the fact that each school day began and ended with a commute is what most clearly distinguished the earliest Barnard student experience from that of its country sisters.
Barnard’s move to Morningside in 1897 only reinforced the college’s essential commuting character in now requiring of its East Siders a daily trek by trolley car across or over the top of Central Park to the still thinly populated and considerably more heterogeneous and down market Upper West Side. The commute from northern New Jersey, with its river-crossing terminus at the 135th St. Ferry dock, was made shorter by the College’s relocation, but longer for students from Queens. An even more determinative development in making Barnard a commuting experience was the opening of the IRT subway in 1904 between City Hall in lower Manhattan to 145th Street. This was soon to be followed by additional rapid transit links between the Upper West Side and the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, effectively extending Barnard’s commuting zonefrom ground zero — the Broadway-at-116th-St. IRT station — outward to a radius of 35 miles, encompassing a tri-state region that included New York City and its surrounding suburbs, plus the densely populated parts of southwest Connecticut and northern New Jersey. A total area of 3800 square miles, it was in 1900 home to 15,000,000 residents, roughly one fifth of all Americans.
While hardly cloistered in its original East Side location, the multi-use Upper Westside where Barnard now found itself permanently located put the College at the geographical center and cultural heart of the American urban condition, with all its attendant fast-paced tempo, rough-edged economic diversity and social heterogeneity. Whatever second thoughts these facts of life produced among some of its founders and early backers, Barnard’s distinct urban essence had first to acknowledged, and then, if possible, embraced. The second response, as we shall see, would be decades in the making, but as early as 1901, a graduating senior, Miss Florence L. Saville, gave voice to the “thoroughly cosmopolitan nature of the student body which Barnard’s situation in New York makes possible.”
Our situation in a great city with its counter attractions, the home ties and demands
which bind a large proportion of the students, the hurrying comings and goings in
crowded trolley cars, trains, or ferry boats ….. In no other college, probably, do the
students represent as many different classes as they do at Barnard College. Barnard
satisfies the demand of every type – from the girl who cannot afford the expense of an
out-of-town college, to the girl who seeks to combine higher studies with an continuance
of social life and pleasures. The result of this intermingling of classes is a broad
democratic spirit which makes itself felt throughout our ranks.
Not everyone connected with turn-of-century Barnard shared Florence’s urban ethic.
- “Not a New Yorker”: The Misbegotten Gill Deanship
Dean Emily James Smith, Dean Emily James Smith Putnam upon her marriage to George Haven Putnam in the summer of 1899, resigned as dean effective February 1, 1900, in anticipation of childbirth. Her abbreviated tenure, surprise resignation and the gender-specific reason prompting it led President Low to urge that her successor be a man. To this end he appointed the historian James Harvey Robinson, a popular instructor of history at both Barnard and Columbia, as acting dean. Although Mrs. Anderson had wanted Putnam to resign upon her marriage, she opposed the idea of a male dean for Barnard and urged fellow trustee Brownell to convey her sentiments to Low, a personal friend. This Brownell did, arguing that “I cannot avoid feeling that the financial support of Barnard is quite as essential as her new administration, and that that support depends upon women, whom Barnard, therefore, can not afford to alienate.” Although Low ceded the point in this instance, he refused Brownell’s request to alter the intercorporate agreement to require the Barnard deanship to be filled by a woman. A search was then undertaken, in which Anderson played a leading role, and on January 11, 1901, the then 41-year old Laura Drake Gill was named Barnard’s second dean. She proved to be a bad choice. During her 7-year deanship much of the progress that Smith, in active collaboration with Columbia President Seth Low, had made toward securing Barnard a stable future, was undone.
Gill’s service as a hospital administrator in Cuba following the American assault in the summer of 1898 commended her to the Barnard search committee. Born and raised in rural Maine, a Smith graduate, with some graduate work in mathematics, she had taught mathematics at Smith’s preparatory school in Northampton before joining the Red Cross. That she was single and available counted in her favor, while the fact that she was a stranger to New York and, as it turned out, hostile to urban life, seem not to have been thought disqualifying. In her very first dean’s report to her trustees, New Yorkers to the person, she declared ‘that most unlovely form of provincialism [was] the provincialism of a great city”.
Within nine months of Gill’s appointment a newspaper account reached Treasurer Plimpton that Miss Gill had resigned in an early meeting she had with Columbia’s equally new but decidedly more imperious president Nicholas Murray Butler. Unlike Low, who extended to Dean Smith the courtesy of treating Barnard like a partner in the larger university enterprise who reported to her own board of trustees, Butler expected all the deans of Columbia’s schools to report directly to him and in Gill’s case not to the Barnard board, upon which he sat ex officio. It took Gill several years to grasp Butler’s notion of their relationship and too late to salvage even the semblance of mutual trust. Butler also blamed Gill for rendering Barnard’s principal benefactor and the dean’s defenders, Mrs. Anderson, unwilling to direct some of her largesse Columbia’s way.
In matters big and small she offended people those she needed as allies. An example of the former: Whereas the 1900 intercorporate agreement gave Barnard full responsibility for the undergraduate instruction of women within the University, it did not take into account that Teachers Colleges, also a party to the agreement , had among its women students some who did not possess ABs. Rather than propose an amicable resolution to this situation with a sister institution with overlapping missions, Gill insisted that Teachers College honor the agreement by transferring all responsibility for instructing its enrolled undergraduates to Barnard. In pressing Barnard’s case, she made some publicly disparaging remarks about the “heterogeneous” quality of the students attending Teachers College. Although she had her way in this dispute, it earned her and Barnard the enmity of TC Dean James Earl Russell and ended space-sharing arrangements worked out by her predecessor in which Barnard students had use of the TC gymnasium.
In lesser matters Gill was equally maladroit. In 1902 she permanently offended trustee Meyer by letting the College’s Steinway piano fall out of tune. The dean also alienated a leading young alumna, Alice Duer Miller, by declining her request in 1905 for a part-time teaching appointment (without salary), presumably because Miller was married. Three months after being rejected, Miller, a future chronicler of Barnard’s history, organized a group of 14 Barnard alumnae from 8 different classes who wrote to President Butler asking him “to consider the removal of Miss Gill.” Among their complaints was her “imposing on Barnard the attitude of isolated colleges.” Their most damning indictment: “She is not a New Yorker.”
The following spring, Gill declined to renew the appointment of a popular English instructor and alumna, another active alumna and Miller’s classmate, Virginia Gildersleeve. Here again she demonstrated a real flare for offending those who could retaliate. When Gildersleeve came to account a half-century later for her decision in 1911 to accept the Barnard deanship, flowed from her reluctance “to have another stranger come in as Miss Gill had done and mess up my College again.”
Even in posterity Gill has attracted her critics. In her estimable Women in Science, the historian Margaret Rossiter cites Dean Gill as responsible for cutting short the promising scientific career of Harriet Brooks. In 1903 (?), Brooks, then an instructor of physics at Barnard, informed Gill of her engagement to marry but assured the Dean of her intentions to continue her teaching and research. Gill promptly terminated Brooks, who, as it turned out, did not marry as expected but did abandon her research. [Fill out this paragraph]
A final example of Gill’s innocence of the folkways of Gotham was her attempt, prior to the Steinway kerfuffle, to help Annie Nathan Meyer find an appropriate school for the trustee’s only daughter, Margaret. When several of City’s fashionable day schools, all with Columbia officials on their boards, had declined to consider Margaret because she was Jewish, Mrs. Meyer complained directly to President Butler, but to no effect. Dean Gill then suggested Margaret apply to the Sacks Collegiate Institute, only to receive from Meyer this lesson in New York intra-tribal distinctions:
I do not like the atmosphere of the Sacks School simply because the girls there come
almost exclusively from a wealthy lass – one which has not had the stability of
generations of wealth – and which is unfortunately an intensely materialistic classs.
Margaret comes from a family in America since the 17th century and I do not care
— another reason – to have her in such an exclusively German atmosphere.
It may have been Gill’s tone deafness in matters ethnic and social that left her out of surviving discussions occupying the boards of both Columbia and Barnard — the former explicitly, the Barnard board inferentially — on the subject that at turn-of-the-century Columbia went by the anodyne label, “The Hebrew Problem.”
- Columbia’s “Hebrew Problem” – and Barnard’s
Columbia College had from its founding as King’s College in 1754 been open to the sons of New York City’s pre-Revolutionary Sephardic Jewish community. A similar receptivity characterized the College’s dealings with the sons of the City’s more recently arrived German-Jewish community when they began applying in the 1860s. This remained the case into the 1890s. In Nicholas Murray Butler’s graduating Class of 1882, which consisted of fifty members, were a half-dozen Jews. It was only in the early 1900s when the presence of Jews at Columbia became “theHebrew Problem,” It was in truth three related problems.
The first was the pressure being applied by leading members of the German Jewish community, some of whom Columbia alumni and donors, to have their relationship with the University acknowledged by having a Jew named to the University Board of Trustees. That no Jew had served on the board since the death of Gershon Seixas in 1826 was a source of consternation among would-be and certified benefactors. These included Jacob Schiff, who was not an alumnus but had endowed a professorship in Hebrew Studies in 1892. Schiff had succeeded in securing the support of President Low for such an appointment, who went so far in 1901 as to propose Isaac N. Seligman (CC 1886) to fellow board Member Bayard Cutting, but an informal polling of other trustees revealed resistance to the idea. “I admit that on this subject [electing a Jew to the Columbia board] I am strongly prejudiced,” Columbia trustee William Barclay Parsons wrote to George L. Rives, a fellow Columbia trustee and later a member of the Barnard board (1908-1918), “and it is possible that my prejudice leads me to give undue weight to my point of view.”
With Butler’s installation, Schiff gradually abandoned his lobbying of trustees open to a Jewish appointee and turned to urging Columbia’s Jewish alumni to withhold their support until an appointment was made. In 1910, Barnard treasurer Plimpton wrote to Columbia alumnus and Barnard trustee Horace W. Carpentier:
I had a long talk with Mr. Schiff about Columbia. He says he will not give a dollar
more to Columbia University until they have a Jew trustee. He thinks that with a
million Jews in this city, and the large number of students they have there, that
they ought to be represented on their board. He says that the Jews are represented
on every institution board in this city.
Schiff’s ongoing generosity to Harvard and his subsequent gifts to Cornell and Barnard were intended to remind Columbia of the cost of its prejudice. In 1911, trustee Seth Low withdrew from further participation in Columbia board after it refused to grant the same access to the Columbia chapel to Jewish organizations that it did to Christian groups.
A second problem was the increasing numbers of the sons of the City’s most recently arrived Eastern European Jewish families attending Columbia College, especially as a way of securing admission to one of the university’s prestigious professional schools. By the early 1900s admission to Columbia’s law school and the College of Physicians and Surgeons was limited to the graduates of four-year colleges, except that students in Columbia College could transfer into them after their second or third year in the College. Thus attending Columbia College provided a shortcut to a professional degree, which made it for financially pressed but professionally ambitious young men who otherwise would have attended CCNY or NYU doubly attractive. An even more economical variation on this was for a student to go to tuition-free City College for three semesters and then transfer to Columbia, and then after three semesters in the College gain admission to the Columbia professional school of his aspirations. With the College admitting all applicants with passing scores on the Regents exams or the College Boards, exams which could be prepared for at one of the City’s public high schools, Columbia College, once limited to prosperous and long established New Yorkers, came within reach of all but the most financially straitened of the ambitious sons of the City’s newest arrivals.
The prospect of Columbia College becoming inundated with the sons of Eastern European immigrants, mostly Jews and nearly all the products of the City’s public high schools, produced the third and for Columbia trustees the most worrisome part of Columbia’s “Hebrew Problem”: WASP Flight. The sons of New York’s leading families with multi-generational ties to Columbia, both those prepared at one of the City’s private schools (Trinity; Collegiate) or away at boarding school, found the prospect of four years at a Columbia with socially disadvantaged classmates wholly given over to academic success distinctly unattractive. Better to follow one’s school chums to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, where “our own kind” remained in a comfortable and commanding majority.
This concern was sufficiently salient among old Columbians and would-be applicants that the College’s dean Frederick P. Keppel (1910-18) was dispatched in 1914 to address the question directly: “Isn’t Columbia overrun with European Jews, who are the most unpleasant persons personally?” His answer, meant to be reassuring, had two parts: that “the proportion of Jewish students is decreasing rather than increasing”; that “by far the majority of the Jewish students who do come to Columbia are desirable students in every way.” Rather than leave the matter there, Keppel went on to make two further distinctions, one interpretive and the other sociological:
What most people regard as a racial problem is really a social problem. The Jews who
have had the advantages of decent social surroundings for a generation or two are
entirely satisfactory companions. Their intellectual ability, and particularly their
intellectual curiosity, are above the average, and the teachers are unanimous in saying
that their presence in the classroom is distinctly desirable. There are, indeed, Jewish
students of another type who have not had the social advantage of their more fortunate
fellows. Often they come from an environment which in any stock less fired with
ambition would have put the idea of higher education wholly out of the question. Some
of these are not particularly pleasant companions, but the total number is not large, and
every reputable institution aspiring to public service must stand ready to give those of
probity and good moral character the benefits which they are making great sacrifices to
Privately, Keppel conceded that the battle to retain the loyalty of Old New Yorkers was lost. When in 1913 Columbia Trustee Francis S. Bangs, whose sons Henry (CC 1906) and Francis (CC 1910) had attended Columbia and bemoaned the experience, floated the idea of limiting admission to Columbia College to residential students, Keppel dismissed it as financially suicidal and demographically ineffective: “To put it frankly, I do not think such a plan, or any other, will bring us the sons of men like Mr. Rives, Mr. Cutting and Mr. Parsons.”
- Fire Bell in the Night
We know less of the internal discussions about “The Hebrew Problem” among Barnard trustees than among their more voluble and document-retentive counterparts at Columbia. To be sure, the institutional circumstances were different, with the Barnard board from its opening relatively more open to Jewish representation and less a gateway for its graduates to professional school preferment. But might we assume that these otherwise equally well-placed New Yorkers, with their many social interactions, shared some of the same class-based concerns, not least the prospect of the institutions with which they identified being inundated by the City’s newest and rawest arrivals? In at least one instance the threat may have been viewed as more palpable as viewed by Barnard’s leaders. At Columbia, the presence of City College and NYU meant that admissions officiials could redirect rejected local applicants elsewhere in the city. For Barnard, the City’s only four-year liberal arts college for women, and thus the only recourse for those girls who for economic reasons were limited to colleges within commuting distance, it posed an even greater challenge.
The first Barnard person found to give voice to these concerns was N. W. Liggett, the College Bursar. She did so in a letter to Treasurer Plimpton, on June 20, 1906.
“Personally I am discouraged,” she began her letter on June 20, 1906, to Plimpton, “considerably discouraged.”
During the summer I want you to look carefully over the names and addresses of the
enclosed candidates. You will observe, I think, that we are drawing a very large
percentage of Hebrews, and others of foreign extraction; that are students are coming
from neighborhoods unknown to most residenters. This contingent might not be open
to criticism if we had plenty of the children of well-to-do New York families also, for the
affiliation would do much to neutralize race limitations.
Liggett then provided Plimpton with the list of names, addresses and collegiate preparation of the 102 applicants. Those she judged to be Jewish she marked with a check. “Only thirteen private schools in New York, Brooklyn, and Staten Island (the city proper) send us pupils,” she reported. “Of these, five send us only Hebrew students. Of 62 taking preliminary examinations, twenty-nine are Hebrews; of 102 taking complete examinations, 40 are Hebrews.” “It seems to me,” she warned Plimpton and his fellow trustees, “that this condition cannot be longer ignored. We are certainly losing ground.”
Nor, as Liggett saw it, was the problem susceptible to such simple remedies as increased publicity.
We are not able to do any successful missionary work in the schools, for things have
reached the pass where this sort of zeal but brings us more Hebrews, and all history
proves that any cause which attracts the support of large numbers of Hebrews is
a losing cause in the end.
Liggett then pivoted to the questionable utility of a new dormitory that trustee Meyer had been promoting with the Guggenheim family. Acknowledging that it was “our only opportunity of winning a new constituency,” she warned,
a dormitory which will receive any number of Hebrews from all parts of the country as
resident students, will do us incalculable harm. Already Hebrews are coming to us from
other sections of the country. They are not from good Jewish families…. A gift of a
dormitory building from a Hebrew would be the most embarrassing gift that could
come to us.”
She then concluded her letter with a down-market assessment of Barnard’s current “material”:
Every year we are drawing less and less from the private school element, and from
the well-to-do classes. Much of the material which we graduate we cannot place
advantageously, where we can ever expect any return, for while their minds are
trained, the social limitation and environment is such that only the public school
is available, and we already have too much of this sort of material coming to us.
What are we to make of this extraordinary letter, its unvarnished anti-Semitism aside?
First, it contains several assertions that hold up to subsequent scrutiny. Barnard’s entering classes in the opening decade of the 20th century did contain a growing proportion of Jewish students, if likely not as many as Liggett’s count suggest. Her identifications square well with other indicators, including census- roll information about parents’ birthplaces and language spoken at homes, as well as subsequent self-identifications. They also comport well with the almost complete absence of the incoming students Liggett identified as Jews later becoming members of Barnard’s discriminatory sororities.
A mapping of the residences of the incoming class of 1910 confirms the veracity of Liggett’s snide comment about their coming “from neighborhoods unknown to most residenters”. Of its 94 graduating members four years later, only seven of the 58 Manhattanites (12%) came from the affluent East Side, while thirteen came from the less wealthy upper reaches of Manhattan and fourteen from the newly residential Upper West Side. A majority (56%) of the others had lengthy commutes from the outer boroughs, Westchester and northern New Jersey. Only three came from outside the New York region.
Liggett was also correct in stating that the City’s leading private schools, with the exception of the Dr. Sachs’s School and Ethical Culture School serving the German-Jewish community, were not sending their college-bound graduates to Barnard in any numbers, but rather favored one or another of the women’s “country” colleges . This was the case with the fashionable all-girls Brearley and Spence Schools, but also the co-educational Horace Mann School on Broadway and 120th St, administered by Columbia University and where many faculty children went. When asked in 1908 by a Columbia official why so few of his graduates went on to Columbia, Horace Mann headmaster Virgil Prettyman responded bluntly that the perception of Columbia among his students was that it had become filled with graduates of the city’s public high schools, making it unattractive to them. Horace Mann’s female seniors very likely felt the same about Barnard. When accounting for Columbia’s failure “to command the support of many of the better New York families,” Prettyman explicitly included Barnard students when he wrote of “the belief that the University’s undergraduate body contains a preponderating element of students who have had few social advantages and that in consequence, there is little opportunity of making friendships of permanent value among them.” His advice to both Barnard and Columbia: “Careful consideration of new channels which bring desirable candidates and the careful turning in other direction such streams as have been proved deleterious.”
Barnard’s leading feeder schools in 1906, accounting for a third of the entering class, were Wadleigh High School for Girls on West 114th Street, with 12 admits; Morris High School in the Bronx, with 9 admits; Jamaica High School in Queens, with 4 admits; Girls High School in Brooklyn, with 3 admits. Four other City high schools provided at least one member to the class, while public high schools in northern New Jersey and Westchester provided another one third of the class. What was said of the girls attending Brooklyn’s Girls High School in 1895 by the New York Times may be more generally applied to all the graduates of these schools: that it was “the ambition of every Brooklyn girl… to enter the Girls’ High School where she may enjoy the advantages of an advanced education and be prepared for college.”
Liggett also proved prescient as to the occupational outcomes of such “material”. Of the 43 members entering in 1906 identified as gainfully employed in 1925, 24 (56%) were employed as teachers, 15 of these in a public high school in New York City, Westchester or northern New Jersey. Liggett’s dismissal of Barnard graduates aspiring to careers in secondary education notwithstanding, for many it was their hard-come-by Barnard degree that enabled them to secure the most gainful and respectable employment then available to women, employment that their realistic ambitions permitted and their economic circumstances required. Long gone were Brooks’s “large number of New York women who are not likely to be compelled to earn their own living and whose sphere of life, in all probability, is to lie in the family or in New York society.”
We do not have Plimpton’s response to Liggett’s crie de coeur, though his continued insistence in approaching potential Barnard donors, Christian and Jewish alike, with the message that “there isn’t a race or nationality that is not represented there,” suggests he did not share her prejudices. (So does the retention of her letter among the papers he archived.)
Another recipient of the Bursar’s letter was Dean Gill, who by 1906 was on the outs with Liggett but also with the College’s Jewish constituency. The latter alienation followed her insistence on scheduling classes on Saturday mornings, despite the difficulties they posed for observant Jews. Rather than acknowledge the conflict, Gill charged those complaining with trying to avoid a sixth day of commuting to campus. She dismissed her Registrar’s premonitions of Barnard’s low standing among “the privates,” as opposed to the surplus public schoolers coming to Barnard “looking to self-support.” “We may have no fear,” she informed her truatees in 1906, “that the college is losing its hold upon those who regard higher education as chiefly ministering to general intellectual ends.” Her thinking so confirms Gill’s increasing unconnectedness with the College during her last months as dean.
But surely some other trustees shared – if not Liggett’s anti-Semitism — her concerns. Trustees with daughters of their own or familiar with the private school scene must have been aware of the reputation Barnard had acquired among wealthier college-bound private schoolers. As one Brearley graduate from Richmond Hill, a wealthy neighborhood in Queens, who, against her wishes ended up at Barnard in 1913, later put it: “I had never seen a Jew. I didn’t know about Jews. Barnard, of course, was full of them. Such interesting delightful people. Many of their mothers were scrubbing floors so they could go through college.”
To be sure, not all the Jews attending Barnard in its early years had mothers who scrubbed floors or who paid their own way. But one such instance was Augusta Salik, Class of 1902, born of Jewish parents from South Russia, who worked her way through Barnard doing social work in Harlem. More typical was Hannah Falk, who entered in 1905. Born to Jewish parents in 1889 in a railroad flat on 14th Street, she moved with her family at least four times in her early years, the last to an apartment on East 93rd St., between Park and Madison, several blocks north of what in those days constituted the wealthy Upper East Side. “It was on the south side of the street,” she recalled eight decades later in an oral history interview. “On the north side it was farm land and squatters lived there in their little houses. It was the end of the city.” But it was also within trolley-car range of the newly opened Wadleigh High School for Girls where she and three classmates went before going on to Barnard. While Hannah’s parents could afford Barnard’s $150 tuition, they were also of the view that “to go out of town [for college] would have been ridiculous in my day.” Once there, the College’s almost total lack of social amenities for its commuting students had its impact. For Hannah Falk, who regularly went home after lunch, ”it wasn’t much of a college experience.” Maybe not, but it was enough of an experience to later secure for the College the financial support of Hannah Falk Hofheimer and her family, as well as the service of her son Joseph Hofheimer as a loyal trustee (1981-1994) of Barnard College in trying times.
[More on the social composition of Barnard students here?]