[Canonsburg, PA]: [1841-1863]. Black leather embossed in blind and gilt, with all edges brightly gilt. Measures 9.25 x 7.25". Manuscript commonplace book containing a total of 69 pages, comprised of 45 handwritten pages and 10 original drawings and watercolors bound into the book, and 14 pieces of art inserted to the front. According to the gift inscription on the title page, the book was a given to Anne Mary E. Irons by her brother on July 27, 1841; across its pages, entries run up to 1863 and were contributed by women enrolled or recently graduated from the Washington Female Seminary as well as male students at the nearby Jefferson College. While most entries are geographically linked to Canonsburg, PA, where the institutions were located, some students' signatures reveal that their homes were farther afield, with entries also marked from Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, and Virginia. The contents of this lovely commonplace book are revealing on a number of levels, as they bring together contributions by men and women at two institutions that would ultimately unite to become Washington & Jefferson College, at a time beginning before the women's movement, and moving all the way through the conclusion of the Civil War.
Washington Female Seminary, founded by Presbyterian abolitionists and suffragists in 1836, and Jefferson College, founded by an early Presbyterian community in 1781, were situated near each other in the Western Pennsylvania town of Canonsburg. Both were committed to providing students with rigorous educations, albeit in different fields. Washington "was credited to be the best known and most noted institution of its kind in the state...and the curriculum consisted of both a course preparing the women to apply to higher schooling and a regular course that consisted of music, art, and elocution" (Clio). Meanwhile, the men of Jefferson were trained to be "well-versed in their fields of law, medicine, and religion" (W&J). Anne, likely a student at Washington, compiles a collection of poetry, sentiments, original verse, landscapes, satirical cartoons, and other sketches that reveal the overlapping interests of students in both schools, as well as showing how they form a single community affected over time by major historical events including the Civil War. "Life for students attending the Washington Female Seminary was a series of ups and downs throughout the turbulent 1860s. During the early days of the Civil War, the street echoed cheers and tears as the girls bade farewell to gallant men proudly marching off to battle amid the strains of martial music" (Harris). Many of these young men were their peers from Jefferson, where "the Civil War temporarily divided the student body" and enrollment hit dangerous lows (W&J). Anne's commonplace book has a near-equal balance of male and female contributors, suggesting the close ties between the communities. And the book further reveals the individuals participating in these narratives -- students from both schools situated above the Mason-Dixon, but whose families hailed from Kentucky, Georgia, and Virginia as well as Northern states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Early entries from the 1850s largely focus on friendship, love, or the beauty of women; those from wartime shift to dissolution, remembrance, and things that outlast death. These are interlaced throughout with beautiful floral designs by women of the seminary, by illustrations of ships and naval vessels, and by drawings of women in historical dress or domestic scenes of dogs. The inserted drawings appear to come later, pulled from a smaller autograph book of Anne's; florals are included, but by far more interesting are the pencil and ink satirical drawings that suggest she and her cohort are maturing and becoming more politically engaged.
Washington Female Seminary and Jefferson College eventually merged after surviving wartime struggles one hundred years later, in 1948 (although it would not be until 1970 that the newly formed Washington and Jefferson College admitted women fulltime). The present compilation is a fascinating and research-rich text presenting opportunities to study the relationships between single-sex institutions and their communities, the effects of war on higher education, the exchange of information between men and women at the start of the women's movement, and the historical experiences of students attending school away from their families' geographical regions. (Item #2973)