I’ve just read a fantastic book published in 1955 on Elmira College’s centennial called Elmira College: The first 100 years by E. Charles Barber. Written in an engaging and at times almost deadpan humorous way, it chronicles this historic institution which was the very first to offer women a baccalaureate degree equal to that of a man.
Although Oberlin offered women a baccalaureate in 1837, the difference lies in the academic rigors which Elmira demanded of its female students. From 1855 Elmira offered two courses of study, classical and scientific. In the classical curriculum, a young lady would have studied Greek and Latin, and in the scientific course, only Latin. Both would include mathematics, rhetoric, English literature, philosophy, history and the natural sciences such as botany and astronomy. Add to that optional courses in music and studio art, as well as modern languages.
Filled with amusing and poignant anecdotes and biographies, Barber’s book brings to life the early college and early Elmira itself. A canal and rail town, Elmira boasted connections, commerce, and culture, but also transient laborers and their seamy amusements. The dual nature of the town demanded a delicate balance for its fair student body, which was achieved under the artful direction of its first president Dr. Augustus Cowles.
This experiment on Prospect Hill in a burgeoning mid-nineteenth century New York rail town proved once and for all that women were capable of great intellectual accomplishment. For women everywhere, Elmira has become a light to the world, a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.