Vassar Yesterday

Hannah Lyman: The Lasting Influence of Vassar's First 'Lady Principal'

Laird Scranton '75 and his wife Risa Sherer Scranton '76 rescue old books. Over the years, they have adopted several thousand of them, some on Vassar-related topics. They have also collected a substantial number of old Vassar postcards showing varied views of nearly every building on campus. Recently, they came across a small, old photo album with photos of Matthew Vassar, President Raymond and other founding faculty of the college, several of Vassar buildings, and portraits of nearly thirty members of the class of 1871. An inscription in front showed that the album itself had been a 15th birthday gift to Mary Nicoll Woodbury, class of 1871, from her grandmother in 1865, coincidentally

One photo in particular caught their attention—a formal portrait of a stately woman with long white curls. Who was she and why was she so prominently featured among the founders?

The Scrantons tell the story.

She was, we learned, Hannah Lyman, hired by President Raymond as Lady Principal upon the opening of the college. We found a quote from Maria Dickinson McGraw, class of 1867, that described her appearance on Vassar’s opening day:

"Never had we seen so resplendent a person as was Miss Lyman—tall and large of frame, though rather spare, with wonderful snow-white curls framing the rarely fair and beautiful strong face."

Historians Taylor and Haight describe her similarly in Vassar as "the lady of the snow-white curls," and refer to her as one of the three dominant personalities of early Vassar, along with President Raymond and Maria Mitchell. How, Risa and I wondered, could we have both come through our years at Vassar and scarcely have heard of such an influential figure? The mystery of the photograph compelled us to learn more about Hannah Lyman.

In the course of our research, we discovered that, at the time President Raymond personally recruited Miss Lyman, she was already well-known for her work at the Ipswich Seminary in Montreal. He defined the duties of her office in a letter dated January 20, 1865:

"Lady Principal, the chief executive officer among the ladies of the corps, and the immediate associate and aid of the president in the internal administration of the College. As the personal and confidential adviser of the young ladies, she would . . . probably more than any other determine the characteristic and ruling spirit of the College."

Taylor and Haight say that her letters "give a clear impression of (an) intensely conscientious worker." At first, she was reluctant to accept the position. She wrote President Raymond to relate some of her misgivings about the job:

"I asked myself what I was to do with two hundred girls, all strangers to me. . . .My theory has always been that boarding-schools are necessary evils; that to make them as like a family as possible is the best way. But I also see that it is impossible that women should receive the highest kind of culture without large institutions. There they must be allowed to develop individually as far as possible."

With some prodding and "abundant reassurance" from President Raymond, she accepted the position and was unanimously elected by the trustees. Her relationship with President Raymond was said to be a close one, and her influence on the college was keenly felt, both inside and outside the college. In Letters from Old-Time Vassar, a student makes reference to an article by a gentleman in charge of another women’s college:

"He said among other things, that President Raymond was a good enough sort of man but he was ruled by Miss Lyman who was the ‘high-cock-o-lorum’ of the college." The same student writes of President Raymond: "I do like him so much but am a trifle afraid he relies on Miss Lyman’s judgement too far. She is so very determined that almost her own will would move the college."

From the start, Hannah Lyman apparently was a force to be reckoned with. An early graduate of Vassar wrote:"Many a girl at once feared her to the limit, resisted her with a petulant dislike, and adored from afar the elegance, the majesty of Vassar’s first and unique Lady Principal."

During 1869, a joke about Miss Lyman circulated among the young ladies on the fourth floor of Main Building, comparing her to a whale because "she only comes up to spout." Although she was strict, her sense of humor seems to have been appreciated:

"Miss Lyman presented us with a criticism of our table manners. it is better than any lecture to hear her. She enters heart and soul into her subject and says so many witty, sarcastic, and scathing things that we can enjoy all together, when if she but opens her mouth to us one by one—woe! woe!"

Despite her stern demeanor, Hannah Lyman’s concern for the students must have been understood, because by March of 1870, relationships with the Lady Principal had improved greatly. Our same correspondent now refers to Miss Lyman as "very dear," and declares in a letter, "Never, never, will I hear or say another word against her!"

By all indications, Miss Lyman took her role at Vassar very seriously and saw the evolution of a particular style of campus life as her personal responsibility. In her first annual report to the college, she identified her own, special challenge as "how to insure that each [student] without a galling espionage should feel herself known and cared for."

In fact, much that is good about Vassar even today—the challenging but casual and egalitarian atmosphere, the emphasis on individual achievement, and the innate homeyness of the campus—has its roots in Hannah Lyman’s vision for the college, and the students of the day attributed these accomplishments to her. In May of 1870, our same student writes in Letters From Old-Time Vassar: "Miss Lyman is certainly a ‘leveler’ in Vassar College, she makes it democratic. In the truest sense it is not what you wear but what you are that makes for honor here."

One chief concern of the Lady Principal was that Vassar remain a casual place. Her personal stamp can be seen on the first student handbook, when it states that "plainness and simplicity of attire" are expected. In July of 1867, afraid that Vassar would become "a hot bed for extravagance in dress," she wrote a letter to parents urging that, "expensive trimmings should be entirely laid aside. . . ." In her estimation, the fanciest dress a young lady should bring with her to Vassar "need be no better than would be required in a plain country home, to spend a quiet day with a friend."

In later years there are several references to Miss Lyman’s delicate health. In one instance, she is referred to as "fragile looking with filmy lace over her silver curls." The students make mention of helping her up and down the stairs of Main Building, talk about the infrequency of her visits out, and at one point express fear that she suffers from "consumption." Nonetheless, she remained a strong influence on Vassar until her death in February of 1871. Her last public appearance was on her 55th birthday, January 29th, 1871. She died quietly, surrounded by her friends and students. The day after her death, the student association voted to wear crepe armbands for a month in her honor.

In December of 1873, the senior class asked President Raymond for permission to raise funds for a portrait of Hannah Lyman. President Raymond liked the idea of a portrait, but offered that the college should pay for it. In later years, as students became graduates, Hannah Lyman remained well-regarded by the alumnae of Vassar College. In 1880, the Associate Alumnae, which devoted itself to the founding of scholarships, established a scholarship fund in her name and dedicated her first full scholarship to her. The Hannah Willard Lyman Memorial Fund is still listed among the scholarship funds of Vassar today.

From Hannah Lyman’s letter "To the Parents of Students," July 23, 1867

Let me premise, that, Vassar College having been founded to give to the young women of our land an opportunity for the same thorough culture that their brothers receive in the highest seminaries of learning, it may fairly be assumed, that parents sending daughters to us, as well as those older students who come in their own right of self-direction, can hardly belong to the class who expect to maintain their social standing by means of display. We have, and hope always to have, students who have themselves earned the money for their expenses, and others the children of those, who, with small incomes, are among our most refined and intelligent people. Such students should learn at once the lesson, that when a woman can say to herself, ‘That is very handsome, but it is not within my means, I can do without it,’—she has taken a great step towards true nobility of character.