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Educating Women for Art and Commerce: The Philadelphia School of Design, 1848–1932

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Nina de Angeli Walls*
University of Delaware


No previous knowledge of drawing required

Keen competition characterized the American market for higher education in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Commercial design schools, normal institutes, business colleges, and four-year liberal arts colleges competed for overlapping pools of potential students. By the turn of the century, schools of commercial art and design, a major innovation in women's education in the 1850s, struggled to retain a small niche in the private education market. Aided by flexible admissions criteria exemplified by the 1919 catalog statement above, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, a pioneer in the American design school movement, survived as a single-sex commercial art school from its founding in 1848 into the twentieth century. By 1932, when a merger with another women's school brought a name change that symbolized the end of an era, the School of Design had enrolled more than four thousand students. Familiar to Philadelphians today as Moore College of Art and Design, the school remains committed to its original mission of educating women for careers in the arts.

Copyright © 1994 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Philadelphia School of Design for Women (hereafter PSDW), Catalogue (Philadelphia, 1919), 22. Major primary sources for this article included: PSDW directors’ minutes, admissions records 1880–1932, and printed catalogs, all at Moore College of Art and Design, Archives, Philadelphia (hereafter MCAD); data on three sample sets of PSDW students, traced in the 1880, 1900, and 1920 manuscript population schedules, U.S. Bureau of the Census, microfilm, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.; personal interviews with five PSDW alumnae; and the Anna Wharton Morris Papers, Friends Historical Library (FHL), Swarthmore, Pa.

2 Solomon, Barbara Miller In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, Conn., 1985); Gordon, Lynn D. Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (New Haven, Conn., 1990); Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, Conn., 1987), 40. In 1880, 1.9 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty-one were enrolled nationally in postsecondary institutions, a figure that rose to 7.6 percent by 1920. Normal or junior colleges, probably including design schools, accounted for only 10.9 percent of women enrolled in 1880, 8.9 percent in 1900, and 7.5 percent in 1920. Mabel Newcomer, A Century of Higher Education for American Women (New York, 1959), 46, 49.

3 Solomon, Educated Women; Gordon, Gender and Higher Education.

4 On Philadelphia's class structure, see Blumin, Stuart The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (Cambridge, Eng., 1989). On family strategies, see Ryan, Mary P. Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (Cambridge, Eng., 1981); Allmendinger, David F. “Mount Holyoke Students Encounter the Need for Life Planning, 1837–1850,” History of Education Quarterly 19 (Spring 1979): 27–46; Goldin, Claudia “Family Strategies and the Family Economy in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Role of Secondary Workers,” in Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family, and Group Experience in the Nineteenth Century: Essays toward an Interdisciplinary History of the City, ed. Hershberg, Theodore (New York, 1981).

5 On PSDW's early history, see de Angeli Walls, NinaArt and Industry in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 117 (July 1993): 177–99; on Women's Medical College, see Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (New York, 1985); on Girls’ High and Normal School, see Custis, J. T. The Public Schools of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1897), 153–76. For an extended development of themes treated in this article, see de Angeli Walls, Nina “Art, Industry, and Women's Education: Philadelphia's School of Design for Women, 1848–1932” (Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, in progress).

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6 Enrollments from PSDW admissions records and directors’ minutes; on the “new era,” see Knauff, Theodore C. Experiment in Training for the Useful and the Beautiful: A History (Philadelphia, 1922), 88, 93.

7 Age and residence data from PSDW manuscript admissions records, and manuscript population census, 1880–1920, U.S. Bureau of the Census.

8 Hershberg, Theodore et al., “A Tale of Three Cities,” in Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family; Newmark, DavidAn Analysis of the Student Body of the Philadelphia Normal School,Educational Administration and Supervision 11 (Sep. 1925): 399416.

9 Solomon, Educated Women; Gordon, Gender and Higher Education; and Gordon, Lynn D.Annie Nathan Meyer and Barnard College,History of Education Quarterly 26 (Winter 1986): 503–22.

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10 On occupational stratification, see Hershberg, et al., “Three Cities”; and Licht, Walter Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840–1950 (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). Occupations of household heads in my samples are from manuscript population schedules, 1880, 1900, and 1920, U.S. Bureau of the Census.

11 Issel, WilliamModernization in Philadelphia School Reform, 1882–1905,Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 94 (July 1970): 358–83; PSDW, directors’ minutes, 1917–18; see also Nina de Angeli Walls, “The Politics of Industrial Art” (paper delivered at the Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting, Villanova, Pa., 1992).

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12 PSDWFinancial Report,1865 in Pennsylvania Legislative Documents, no. 21 (Harrisburg, Pa., 1866). PSDW records listing public scholarship students by name begin in 1887.

13 Class list, 1852, Records of the Franklin Institute Committee on the School of Design, Franklin Institute Archives, Philadelphia. Manuscript population schedules, 1860, Philadelphia, 13th ward, 459, U.S. Bureau of the Census, listed Margaret Peddle as a “teacher of drawing”; on Peddle's contract, see PSDW, “Annual Report,” 1862, MCAD. On the Oakfords, see Blumin, Middle Class, 74 211; and Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Hicksite), in Hinshaw, W. W. Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938), 2: 811.

14 Not listed in the 1870, 1880, or 1900 census indexes, Phillips may have been the West Philadelphia dressmaker by the same name listed in Gopsill's Philadelphia City Directory (Philadelphia, 1900), 1815. Clark's, C. H. window-shade establishment appeared in Gopsill's 1882 Directory.

15 On the Morris and Wharton families, see Morris Papers; also Morris, Harrison S. Confessions in Art (New York, 1930); and Wright, Catharine Morris The Color of Life (Boston, 1957), 7. PSDW, Catalogue (1887), 28–29, listed graduates from 1877 to 1886.

16 On age norms, see Kett, Joseph F. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York, 1977); and Chudacoff, Howard P. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture (Princeton, N.J., 1989). PSDW, Catalogue (1919), 22. On evening and Saturday classes, see PSDW, Catalogue (1920–21), 5. For national college enrollment statistics, see Newcomer, Higher Education, 46.

17 Goodman, HelenWomen Illustrators,Woman's Art Journal (Spring/Summer 1987), 1322; Brown, Ann Barton Charlotte Harding: An Illustrator in Philadelphia: The Exhibition, March 20 through May 23, 1982 (Chadds Ford, Pa., 1982); Brown, Ann Barton Alice Barber Stephens: A Pioneer Woman Illustrator (Chadds Ford, Pa., 1984).

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18 Belcher, Gerald and Belcher, Margaret Collecting Souls, Gathering Dust: The Struggles of Two American Artists, Alice Neel and Rhoda Medary (New York, 1991); Rhoda Myers Medary also attended PSDW; on the Murdock family, see manuscript population schedules for 1920, Philadelphia e.d. 1635, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2.

19 Warner, Sam Bass Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1978); Warner, Sam Bass Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1987); Cutler, William W. and Gillette, Howard eds., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800–1975 (Westport, Conn., 1980); Hershberg, ed., Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family.

20 Knauff, Experiment in Training; for a comparable “urban campus” at New York's Barnard College, see Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s, 2d ed. (Amherst, Mass., 1993).

21 Baltzell, E. Digby Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1979); Thomas, George E. “Architectural Patronage and Social Stratification in Philadelphia between 1840 and 1920,” in Divided Metropolis, ed. Cutler and Gillette.

22 Marsh, Margaret Suburban Lives (New Brunswick, N.J., 1990), esp. ch. 4 on Overbrook Farms; also Margaret Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900–1930,” in Divided Metropolis, ed. Cutler, and Gillette, 169–92; Miller, Roger and Siry, Joseph “The Emerging Suburb: West Philadelphia, 1850–1880,” Pennsylvania History 47 (Apr. 1980): 99–145.

23 Cutler, and Gillette, ed., Divided Metropolis; for ward maps see Daly, John and Weinberg, Allen Genealogy of Philadelphia County Subdivisions, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1966); on South Philadelphia, see Maneval, John “Ethnic History of South Philadelphia, 1870–1980: A Research Guide” (unpublished report, Balch Institute Archives, Philadelphia, 1992).

24 PSDW, directors’ minutes, 12 Dec. 1922, 62.

25 PSDW, student registers, 1920–22, MCAD, listed Loeb in 1920, Gelb in 1921, and Andrassy in October 1922; each left during the fall term; Theresa Bernstein, The Journal (Cranbury, N.J., 1991), 2237. On the Graphic Sketch Club, see Edward Longstreth, “Democracy in Art,” Art and Archaeology 21 (Apr. 1920): 220–28; and Watts, Harvey M. “A Triumphant Art Training Experiment,” Arts and Decoration 15 (June 1921): 90–91, 118, 143.

26 PSDWAnnual Report,1854 17; on earlier policies, see PSDW, Minutes of Lady Managers, 9 Dec. 1850, 20, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; PSDW, directors’ minutes, 13 Sep. 1852, 51; and Franklin Institute, First Annual Report… Committee on the School of Design (1852), 2, 4.

27 Institute, Franklin Proceedings… School of Design (1850); PSDW, “Report for 1865,” in Pennsylvania Legislative Documents, no. 21 (Harrisburg, Pa., 1866).

28 Licht, Getting Work; Lerman, Nina, “From ‘Useful Knowledge’ to ‘Habits of Industry': Gender, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Technical Education (Nineteenth-Century, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)“ (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1993); Walls, “Industrial Art.”

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29 In 1875, 655 females attended high school in Philadelphia, 2.7 percent of the number in primary schools; 29.8 percent of primary school students went on to grammar schools. “Editorial Department: Philadelphia Statistics,” Pennsylvania School Journal 25 (July 1876): 37. Philadelphia Board of Education, Annual Report (1876), 51, lists Girls’ High attendance and graduation figures from 1848 to 1876. Of Central High parents between 1838 and 1920, 70–75 percent came from the nonmanual sector. David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and Central High of Philadelphia, 1839–1939 (New Haven, Conn., 1988), esp. 40, 53. See also Tyack, David The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

30 PSDW, admissions records, give details on scholarship holders.

31 Brown, Charlotte Harding; Goodman, Women Illustrators,” 13–22; on the social status of Philadelphia's successful artists, see Walls, “Art, Industry, and Women's Education“; Who's Who in American Art, 19th ed., s.v. “Bernstein, Theresa,” 88; Belcher, and Belcher, Collecting Souls; see PSDW, “School List,” 1887–1923, MCAD, for Bernstein's and Neel's scholarship records; PSDW, “Commencement Program,” May 1915.

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32 On the “new woman,” see, for example, Cott, Modern Feminism; and Meyerowitz, Joanne J. Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago, 1988).

33 Institute, Franklin Proceedings… School of Design for Women, 27.

34 Wright, Color of Life, 54.

35 McClelland, Dorcas Doolittle interview with the author, 9 Oct. 1991; Beatrice Hedley Kirkbride, interview with the author, 9 Mar. 1992. Belcher, and Belcher, Collecting Souls, 9, cite the hat rule also. On the Goodell family, see also Morris, Anna Wharton Journals, Jan. 1914, Jan. 1915, v. 10, pp. 60, 114, FHL; Anne Goodell's sister Margaret was a close friend of Catharine Morris.

36 Pettes, Alicia McCaffrey interview with the author, 11 Mar. 1992. “Miss Bowman” may refer to Emma J. Buckman, who taught lettering, ornament, and design from 1915 to 1946; Katherine Nassau van Roekens, interview with the author, 9 Mar. 1992.

37 Roekens, Van interview, 1992; Kirkbride, interview, 1992.

38 PSDW, directors’ minutes, 16 Jan. 1923, 71 (new rules); ibid., Nov. 1922, 51 (2 expelled); ibid., Dec. 1922, 67; ibid., 3 Feb. 1923; PSDW, “Student Records,” 1902–27, 199, 204, MCAD; McClelland interview, 1991.

39 Stahl, Louise Zimmerman interview with the author, 18 May 1993; Belcher, and Belcher, Collecting Souls, 10.

40 Kirkbride, interview, 1992; Kirkbride, Beatrice Hedley Autobiographical ms., c. 1987 (transcript in author's possession); on the Public Industrial Art School, see Lerman, “‘Useful Knowledge.’”

41 Solomon, Educated Women, 146 243, cites Reynolds, O. Edgar The Social and Economic Status of College Students (New York, 1927), on relatively high family incomes of women attending private colleges.

42 Blumin, Middle Class, 11.

43 Muncy, Robyn Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York, 1991), xiii.

44 Blumin, Middle Class, 191.

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