Friday, February 20, 2015

I Found Them in Special Collections: Three Mount Holyoke Women and Their Pursuit of Education

The seminary textbook collection in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections provides numerous insights into the lives of students who attended Mount Holyoke. These books are records of intellectual connections forged among students during the College’s early years. Because students followed a set curriculum, almost every woman attending Mount Holyoke at the time would have read the same books. Through their common education, students would connect with their peers, forming friendships that would continue throughout their lives.

At times, the personal stories of these students slip from the pages of their textbooks. This was the case when I happened across an unassuming copy of Virgil’s works last semester. Upon opening the front cover I discovered a small photograph of a woman in dark Victorian dress captioned “Mattie M. W. McIntyre, Holyoke Home Dec. 8. 1852” pasted inside. After some digging in the archives I discovered a box filled with letters and souvenirs from her time at Mount Holyoke. One of the most intriguing objects was an autograph book, filled with notes and signatures from her friends and family. Many signatures were from women she had met at Mount Holyoke. Remarkably, two of the women, Helen E. Carpenter and Anna E. Benton, had also donated their own textbooks to our collection.

The autograph book, textbooks, and diploma that belonged to Martha McIntyre

By following the stories of Martha, Helen, and Anna we can see how their education at Mount Holyoke allowed them to pursue their future with confidence. Although their paths took them to different parts of the country their experience at Mount Holyoke connected them in unexpected ways.

Martha (Mattie) McIntyre, a native of Massachusetts, graduated Mount Holyoke in 1854. While here she received a “brilliant education” and made many friends among her fellow students. From her husband’s letters we know that she particularly admired her principal, Mary Chapin.

Martha McIntyre

A year after graduation she moved to Marion, Ohio to teach. While there, she met her husband, Peter Oliver Sharpless; they were married in 1857, just two years after her arrival. They remained in Ohio for the rest of their lives, living in a quaint, ivy-covered house. After her death in 1898, Martha was remembered as “a brilliant, educated, intellectual woman, socially affable, and personally very popular with all in her circle of acquaintances.”

The home of Martha and Peter Oliver Sharpless

Helen Carpenter arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1852 after working as a teacher in Brookfield, Massachusetts. After completing her education at Mount Holyoke in 1855 she continued to teach in Woodstock, Connecticut for a number of years. In February 1871 she sailed to Maui, Hawaii to teach at East Maui Seminary, a school that had been modeled after Mount Holyoke. She followed Sarah Gilson Bowman (x-Class of 1850) as principal. During the twenty years she remained there, 412 girls came under her care. She eventually moved back to Woodstock, Connecticut where she remained for the rest of her life.

East Maui Female Seminary, Photograph taken by Anna C. Edwards in 1898

Like Helen, Anna Benton taught school for several years before beginning her own education. She arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1850 and was immediately swept into a busy schedule of classes and chores. In a letter to her aunt she confessed, “I never lived in such a hurry in my life. It is hurry to bed when the bell rings for fear of being tardy. Hurry and sleep all you can. Hurry and get up before you can see. And hurry all day.” Her favorite subjects were Latin and Mathematics although her studies covered a wide range of subjects.

Anna Benton King

In a 1924 interview she reminisced that, “even in those early days we had courses in economics and in political questions, although none of us thought then of women having the vote.” Anna met her husband Horace while he was visiting his niece, Sarah Roselle King at Mount Holyoke. According to a family member, it “was a case of love at first sight on the part of both.”* They were married in 1853 and moved to the King family home in Enfield, Connecticut. She remained in Enfield until her death in 1924.

Textbooks, letters, and a notebook that belonged to Anna Benton during her time at Mount Holyoke

In the preface to her autograph book, Martha predicted that, “Long after the writers shall have gone from sight may the work of the hand and the lettered thought remain. But not with the duration of perishable pages shall that of their influence be measured.” Although our knowledge of these women comes from the “perishable pages” they left behind, their true legacy lies in the friendships and connections they made throughout their life. At Mount Holyoke, these women were joined by friendship and a desire to expand their intellectual horizons. After they graduated, each sought to use her knowledge and passion for learning to educate others. In doing so, they forged an intellectual legacy passing their knowledge on to their students. Although their true influence cannot be transmitted onto paper, I am glad they thought to leave a paper trail so that, almost 165 years later, we can continue to learn from their stories.

*King, Cameron Haight, The King family of Suffield, Connecticut, it’s English ancestry and American descendants (San Francisco, 1908), accessed October 3, 2013, Google Books, page 358.

Emily Wells is the Special Collections student assistant and a senior history major. Read the Mount Holyoke news story about her internship at Historic Deerfield last summer!

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