Monday, July 1, 2013

Simeon Benjamin is the Name that Began Elmira’s Fame

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1855 Elmira Female College opened as the nation’s first college that granted baccalaureate degrees to women that were equal to those awarded to men.  The college would not have been built without the drive, determination and funding of Simeon Benjamin. 

Simeon Benjamin
 Benjamin was a successful, wealthy business man when he moved to Elmira in 1835.  He was raised with a deep sense of Christian liberality that led his desire to give women an equal chance at attaining higher education.  When plans fell through to create a female college in Auburn, New York (the idea of educating women was too radical and visionary to come up with funding there), Benjamin used his influence to have the charter changed and the school moved to Elmira. Elmira at the time was known for being very progressive and liberal.  Benjamin invested heavily and encouraged his friends and business associates to do so as well. 

Elmira Female College opened its doors in October 1855.  Cowles Hall, named after the College’s first president, was the college’s first building.  When it opened its doors in October of 1855 there was very little furniture, the furnace was not yet in working order and the building itself wasn’t even competed but it still received over 150 students. 
Cowles Hall
It was very important to Benjamin that energetic young women, no matter what their family background could attend so the cost of attendance was set at $120 a year which included tuition, room, board, fuel and lights.  Unfortunately, that sum was too low to meet the actual costs of running the college. Benjamin advanced and loaned the college money several times to keep it running, especially during the Civil War.  Upon his death in 1868, Benjamin bequeathed $25,000 for a perpetual endowment fund for the college.  It was one of the largest funds held by a college at the time. 

The first graduating class of Elmira Female College received their diplomas in 1859.  In the first fourteen years of its existence the college graduated 130 women with four year degrees comparable to those of men.  Tough times in the 1880s saw as few as three students in a graduating class but the college endured.  Today there are over 1,600 students, both male and female, enrolled at Elmira College.  

Elmira Female College, class of 1859

1 comment:

  1. The middle decades of the 19th century were a significant period of innovation and reform in northeastern America, and especially in upstate or outstate New York. The City of Elmira, Simeon Benjamin, the Jervis Langdons, the John Arnots, and others played important roles in this formative period.