History of Newcomb College
In a letter dated October 11, 1886, Josephine Louise LeMonnier Newcomb first wrote to the Administrators of the Tulane University Educational Fund of her desire to establish a college in memory of her daughter, Harriot Sophie. Mrs. Newcomb, at the time a resident of New York City, was surrounded by a number of people advocating for the admission of women to such places as Columbia University. The mid to late 1800s were filled with the beginnings of many women's colleges and coeducational opportunities. The women's colleges in particular promoted a curriculum in which graduates emerged ready for active and successful lives, more prepared for the gainful employment available than in any period until the late 1970s. Whereas not much is known of Josephine Louise Newcomb's educational philosophy, one can deduce from the contents of her library and her initial instructions to the Tulane University Board that she shared the spirit of her times and wished to be among those persons instrumental in establishing opportunities for younger women. Her initial gift of $100,000 was followed by other donations until more than three and a half million dollars were given. These funds assured the Newcomb College a solid economic foundation for its early years. Indeed, Mrs. Newcomb's gift made the College the most financially secure of all the Southern women's colleges.
Mrs. Newcomb's donation to the Tulane Board brought about an unusual arrangement for the education of women: the creation of the first degree-granting coordinate college for women to be founded in America. This model was later adopted by several colleges, including Barnard College of Columbia University and Pembroke College of Brown University.
This plan for a women' coordinate college provided for a separate president and faculty who were given the power to determine policy and the course of study for Newcomb students as separate and distinct from the education of the men. While Mrs. Newcomb's specifications for the College made available to young women the same opportunity for a liberal arts education as was being offered to young men through Tulane's College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), her conditions also created an arrangement in which women and men were educated separately.
In conservative New Orleans, as well as in many other parts of the United States, the separation of the sexes was seen as one of the main reasons for creating colleges specifically for women, including the coordinate college. William Preston Johnston, President of Tulane at that time, was convinced that New Orleans would accept the education of women at Tulane only if the girls and women did not intrude upon the studies of boys and men.
Johnston, however, was a passionate advocate of New Orleans' readiness for the higher education of women within Tulane. The Louisiana Cotton Exposition, held in New Orleans in 1884, brought prominent suffrage workers Susan B. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe to the city. They urged New Orleans women to produce handcrafted products to support themselves. Upon this advice, William and Ellsworth Woodward, Professors of Art at Tulane University and Tulane High School, organized free art classes at the Exposition. So popular were these classes that the Woodwards afterwards opened the Ladies Decorative Art League and the New Orleans Art Pottery. Many of the women who joined these groups matriculated as the first students at Newcomb College when the Woodwards were later employed to organize the College art department.
For the position of President of the College, the Tulane Board recruited Brandt V.B. Dixon (pictured here). Dixon was uncertain if the College could succeed and only reluctantly accepted the position. He felt that the city had few young women adequately prepared for college-level work. He also feared that the University would limit both his freedom to establish the type of school he desired and the economic base to run such an institution. Ultimately, he was persuaded to come to New Orleans on the condition that the Board would allow him to admit only those students prepared for college work and free him of the responsibility for the institution's financial standing.
As Dixon had anticipated, the first students were not well-prepared for college-level work. While entrance requirements to the better colleges for men (and increasingly to women's colleges in the Northeast) required grounding in classical languages and a background in mathematics, English literature, grammar, and history, the students being sent by their parents to enroll in Newcomb College were often 15 and 16 years old, with little academic preparation. Many parents considered Newcomb to be a "finishing school" or "ladies' college," a conception that Dixon was determined to fight. Rather than alienate the community, turn away eager students, or provide a remedial education, Dixon established a preparatory program. The Newcomb High School was to operate from 1888 to 1920 and allowed Newcomb College a steady stream of qualified and loyal applicants.
Dixon remained as Newcomb's President until 1919. During his tenure, Newcomb flourished and grew. The first campus was a single building on Camp Street at Delord (now Howard Avenue). From this location, Dixon assembled a small faculty to teach the first students: 59 academic students and 91 art and part-time students. With the dedication of the faculty and students, the College gained success and soon outgrew its campus. Josephine Louise Newcomb was persuaded to purchase and fund the remodeling of the Robb-Burnside Mansion, a grandiose Italianate villa on Washington Avenue for the new campus. In January 1891, Newcomb began classes at the Washington Avenue campus in the heart of the fashionable Garden District. With stately live oak trees lining the campus, and well-tended grounds, the campus resembled the isolated academies and convents that served day students in other Southern cities. Over time, other nearby buildings were purchased, and the campus was expanded to include a small chapel, dormitories, a pottery building, and a music building. Located some three miles from the Tulane campus where young men attended classes, Newcomb students had little contact with others of the University.
The College flourished academically, gaining a great deal of regional respect. Dixon, with the help of the alumnae, began more earnestly to recruit both faculty and boarding students. Academic standards rose and enrollment grew. By 1916, Newcomb had become one of only seven Southern schools that held a standard college designation within the Southern Association of College Women.
Two departments particularly distinguished themselves. One of these was the Department of Physical Education. Its first chair, Clara Gregory Baer, is considered an early pioneer of the physical health movement. In 1895, Baer published "Basketball Rules for Women and Girls," in which she described two shots, the one-handed and the jump shot, which were not adopted in men's basketball until 1936. She also invented and marketed a game called "Newcomb Ball," and became an advocate in securing employment for Newcomb graduates in local schools. Clara Baer, and later Florence Smith, another Physical Education faculty member, inaugurated athletic activities such as Field Day, class teams, gymnastic classes, and rope climbing, which brought Newcomb attention within the New Orleans community and prestige among women's colleges.
But perhaps even more noteworthy was the introduction and success of the Newcomb Pottery, an enterprise which grew out of the early influence of Howe and the art classes of the Cotton Exposition. Ellsworth Woodward felt an arts education should serve more than aesthetic purposes and encouraged the education of women as designers and producers of arts and crafts. He proposed that the students and graduates of Newcomb's art program would learn skills with income-producing potential. Woodward's idea had an overwhelming appeal to Dixon as well as to the local students and the New Orleans community. As in the Northeast and other parts of the United States, the students who came to the women's college of Newcomb were, for the most part, the daughters of some of the more prominent families. The families sought for their daughters the privilege of education in order to enhance their chances of making a good marriage and, if not, of supporting themselves. In the post-Civil War South, however, families were acutely aware of the lack of money. Therefore, New Orleans families had a somewhat greater desire to find a useful education for their daughters than did parents elsewhere.
Josephine Louise Newcomb's original donation specifying an education that looked to the "practical side of life" also favored the development of an "industrial" art program. The Newcomb Pottery was an experiment, or model industry, to provide employment for women at a time and in a milieu where few opportunities existed.
Dixon and Woodward recruited Mary Given Sheerer, who was associated with the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, to begin Newcomb's pottery program. The Pottery, as the whole enterprise came to be called, employed men to perform the physical labor of throwing the pots that the students and faculty had designed. While only a dozen or so women were able to fully support themselves as artists, they established the international reputation of the "Newcomb Art School," as it was referred to from 1910 to 1945. In these early years, the art program was expanded to include many other arts and crafts, including bookplates, metalwork, jewelry, embroidery, and hand-bound books—often with embossed leather covers and elaborate clasps. The success of the art program meant that to many art students as well as community members, Newcomb College and the Art School were synonymous. Before the Pottery closed in 1940, over 70,000 pieces of pottery and an unknown quantity of other craftwork were produced.
While these early curricular developments made Newcomb an institution that distinguished itself among Southern women's colleges, its location in the city of New Orleans also made Newcomb unique among its counterparts. Because the urban environment provided a large body of potential students, the majority of Newcomb students were day students from New Orleans. Diversity in religious orientation was provided by the large Catholic and Jewish populations of New Orleans. These factors, along with the unusual labor of the women associated with the Pottery, resulted in an atmosphere that was less stringently filled with rules and regulations than most other women's colleges and more open to the possibilities of women's varied lives.
These very characteristics that made Newcomb different from other Southern women's colleges also acted against the early growth of the College. Because the majority of Newcomb students returned daily to their families, the creation of a collegiate culture in the first decade was slow to develop. Also, the conservatism of New Orleans affected the overall acceptance of the higher education of women. Many people feared the results of educating women. Would these women remain fit for motherhood? Would their studies cause mental or physical illnesses? These questions are typical of those asked about women in colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To soothe these fears, Newcomb faculty, administrators, alumnae, and students emphasized education for the enhancement of women's roles as wives and mothers. The goal of graduating women who involved themselves in service to their churches, their community, and only sometimes careers became paramount. As a group, Newcomb students were politically conservative. The College advocated lives built upon gentility and only most cautiously, ideas such as suffrage and political change.
Nevertheless, when Newcomb moved to the Broadway campus in 1918, with custom-designed classrooms and art buildings, a larger dormitory that included a resident Counselor-to-Women, and increased academic rigor, it reinforced its role as a leader among Southern women's colleges. The move to the Broadway campus brought Newcomb students, who considered themselves more serious and sophisticated than students at other schools such as Agnes Scott, Randolph-Macon, and Sweet Briar, full access to a collegiate life, both socially and academically. The Broadway campus was located adjacent to Tulane, and more joint activities with male students began to take place. Sororities and other student clubs began to acquire permanent places on campus for their meetings. The times themselves engendered a new spirit of independence and modernity: women served in World War I, hemlines were shortened, hair was bobbed. And yet, there was a pointed attempt to retain the idea of continuity with the old Newcomb. Acorns from the original oak trees of the Washington Avenue campus were transplanted to the new campus; traditions such as class ring ceremonies, the wearing of caps and gowns, May Day, and other rituals were continued.
The move to Broadway, however, also symbolized less independence for Newcomb within the University. Newcomb was to feel an increasing acceptance of the Tulane "umbrella." Dixon was to be Newcomb's only "President" and his successor in 1919, Pierce Butler, was named "Dean." Butler inherited a rich and successful College but also one that suffered through the Depression and one which, of necessity, merged more with the University. Some coeducational activities were viewed as opportunities by the Newcomb students, faculty, and administrators: for example, the chances for advanced study, coed Glee Club and plays, and access to a larger library. However, Butler fought against some of these coeducational ventures and was known for being quite vocal in his defense of Newcomb's separate status. He also worked very hard to see that Newcomb maintained its status as a first-rate institution, often discouraging the development of programs he considered frivolous, such as the Newcomb Nursery School, which did not become formally recognized as a part of Newcomb until 1946.
Under Butler's leadership, the College continued to grow with the addition of two new dormitories, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and an auditorium. Butler also concentrated on the strengthening the liberal arts and sciences, phased out programs in domestic science and education, increased the number of faculty, and established new departments such as psychology, which had previously existed as isolated courses.
Frederick G. Hard (1938-1943) and later Logan Wilson (1943-1951) succeeded Butler. In these years, further developments cemented Newcomb's place in both the community and the University. The coverage of Newcomb in the local New Orleans newspapers kept the eye of the city on Newcomb sports, parties, prizes, and sometimes, education. Newcomb in these days had its own correspondent to the papers, who was admonished, however, to provide readers with "more news and less Newcomb."
World War II changed all American society and Newcomb was certainly no exception. Married women were no longer classified as "special students," but were admitted as regular students. With men gone to war, Newcomb students gained more leadership roles in Tulane publications and extracurricular activities. The Newcomb Library, the Howard Library, and the Tilton Library were all merged during these years into a building that was located on the Newcomb side of the campus, but called simply the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library.
When the war was over, Newcomb students did not easily relinquish their gains. Both men and women students began to move freely between the Newcomb and Tulane campuses. Increasingly, juniors and seniors from Newcomb and A&S were allowed to take courses together. By 1970, all students were offered the option of coeducational classes.
During the post-war years, Newcomb raised its standards, implemented new programs, increased enrollment, and required College Entrance board exams for the first time.
During the sixties, seventies, and into the eighties, A&S and Newcomb continued their gradual consolidation without inciting much protest. Student organizations and activities contributed to a closer relationship between the students and faculties of the two undergraduate colleges. Thus, neither students nor alumnae voiced much protest when the separate academic departments of Newcomb and A&S were brought together administratively under one chair in the late 1960s. Student life began to be administered from centralized offices on the university level, and a single curriculum for Newcomb and A&S was almost completely achieved in 1979. The one remaining difference, the requirement that Newcomb students take physical education, was abolished, and a unified curriculum was established in 1987.
Gradually, however, many people became alarmed at the increasing merger of the two colleges. Newcomb alumnae were particularly concerned that the old Newcomb, the symbol of Newcomb's past, was being lost.
Many students and faculty began to speak out for the selection of a woman as a permanent dean. Newcomb's highest administrative positions had been held predominantly by men. (The only woman dean up to this point had been Anna Many, who had served as dean from 1951 to 1953.) It was felt by many that a strong woman dean would serve as a positive role model for students and faculty and strengthen Newcomb's less favorable position within the University. Newcomb's primarily female faculty was historically paid less than the faculty of A&S. Yet, due to conflicting goals about the status of Newcomb, the College was without a permanent dean for a large part of the 1970s and 1980s. Susan Wittig was hired in 1979, resigned in 1981, and was followed by Acting Deans Raymond Esthus (1981-83), Mary Ann Maguire (1985-87), Emily Vokes (1987-88), and one permanent dean, Sara Chapman (1984-85).
As Newcomb celebrated its centennial in 1986, dissatisfaction increased. The faculties of Newcomb and A&S had become uncomfortable with the coordinate arrangement, particularly as it was perceived to influence decisions concerning tenure and promotions. As Newcomb and A&S departments merged, and as the appointment of new faculty to one or the other of the colleges appeared arbitrary, faculty loyalty shifted away from the colleges to their academic department. In 1987, discussion over the autonomy of Newcomb College reached an impasse. Neither the faculty, the administrators, nor the alumnae was happy with the organization of the two colleges within the University, and an easy resolution to the situation seemed remote. Consultants from outside the university were retained to study the possible options. Their report led to a decision to merge the faculties of Newcomb and A&S into a single Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to consolidate most of the administrative offices. Newcomb alumnae were very active and vocal during this period, vigilant in their efforts to see Newcomb remain a viable college for women similar to the one they had known. They were instrumental, for example, in preserving the name of the Newcomb Art Department and the Newcomb Music Department, which Tulane wished to call the Tulane Art Department and the Tulane Music Department.
As a result of all such recommendations and decisions, the Newcomb structure and that of A&S were reorganized. In this reorganization, the Board of Administrators affirmed "that Newcomb College and the College of Arts and Sciences shall continue to be distinct, each with its own student body, dean, and staff." The area "bounded by Broadway, Zimpel Street, Newcomb Place, and Plum Street, the buildings thereon, the Newcomb Dean's House, Warren House, and Caroline Richardson" Building was deemed to remain, in perpetuity, Newcomb's campus. To oversee the various activities that promote the education of women, the Board established the Newcomb Foundation and outlined the existence of a body of faculty members, Newcomb Fellows, to act in support of the College's mission.
These changes and others represented an attempt to offer an updated version of the Newcomb legacy: the benefits of an education found within a women's college, coupled with the resources of a coeducational institution. Under Dean Ann Die (1988-92), Acting Dean Beth Willinger (1992-93), Dean Jeanie Watson (1993-97), and Acting Dean Valerie Greenberg (1997-2000), and Dean Cynthia Lowenthal (2000-2006), Newcomb's mission continued to focus on a literary as well as a practical education for women. In a society in which men and women would increasingly work together, yet one in which women would still meet with considerable prejudice, Newcomb administrators crafted an administrative structure of a separate, though no longer autonomous, institution within the University from which to prepare young women for their future lives.
Then, in late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of the city brought massive financial losses to the University. In 2006, the University abolished the two colleges of liberal arts and sciences, Newcomb and A&S, along with the School of Engineering. Newcomb-Tulane College is now the home for all male and female undergraduates. The Newcomb student and alumnae protests following this announcement led the Administrators of Tulane University to place stewardship for women's education in the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University. The Institute, under the leadership of Executive Director Sally J. Kenney, oversees Newcomb-endowed funds as well as Newcomb's true endowment, approximately forty million dollars. Ironically, this would be the first time Newcomb funds would largely be in the control of the Newcomb administration.
At the writing of this essay, the dispute between University and a group called "The Future of Newcomb College" (on behalf of an heir of Mrs. Newcomb) over these circumstances has ended. At question was not so much the intent of Mrs. Newcomb's donation to honor her daughter through the establishment of a college for women, but rather the legal terms of this desire. What is not in question is that the College for 120 years met her goals of a practical and literary education for women. The College also became something else that Mrs. Newcomb desired, a place that "would go on year by year doing good." As she stated, "Such a memorial ... [remains] better than statues or monuments."
If you wish more detailed information about the Newcomb Archives' holdings on the history of the college, please contact the Newcomb Archives about obtaining a copy of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College: A Research Guide by Georgen Coyle and Susan Tucker, the volume from which part of this short history was excerpted. All images are found in the photographic collection of Newcomb Archives.
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