I know, I know. I have now announced that I am leaving the 19th century. Why should I go back there? Why bring up Sarah Hale again, considering the fact that I posted about her five weeks ago? Well, I can’t help it; I have to let you all know what I’ve been up to with regards to Mrs. Hale.
At Vassar College, in Special Collections, there are sixty-three letters, each in separate folders, split into two boxes. They’re the letters that led to Vassar College being called “Vassar College,” as opposed to “Vassar Female College.” Most of the letters are typescript copies that (I think) were made in the 1930s (based on some notes on the bottom of a handful of the letters in the second box), but a few at the beginning of the collection are original letters. They are the letters that Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, sent to Matthew Vassar, John Raymond, Benson Lossing and others. She was campaigning for the institution’s 1866 name change, and she led the charge for six years.
I was fortunate enough to visit Vassar’s Special Collections and read through the Hale letters on two different occasions, and it was quite an experience. I learned in late middle school that there are people who do primary source research and write books, and then there are people who take those books and make textbooks, and then there are students who consume history from tertiary sources. Which never really seemed like the best situation. Why do I have to read about something that has been summarized in a textbook when I could read the thing itself? This is why I’m an English major — you don’t learn about Christian mysticism in the fourteenth century; you read The Book of Margery Kempe.
Getting into Sarah’s letters (because she quickly became Sarah to me) was perfect and beautiful and it made me cry. I love her. I don’t know how to explain it, because she’s dead. But it’s like a mixture of the attachment you get to a beautiful fictional character, but then you realize that the person is real and was alive and passionate about things, and it gets you. It hammers this timeless poignancy into your heart because look! This woman was alive and was breathing and writing and living a life. Nobody made her up; she just was. She was alive. When Matthew Vassar wrote in 1867 that he was worried about her health and his own, and afraid they might not see each other in person again in this life, it is real. It’s not fiction. The sorrow is real. It’s real, and it’s so beautiful.
Apart from being entirely emotionally affected by the experience of reading Sarah’s letters, I learned a lot about the process of studying history. For example, did you know that when you go into Special Collections at Vassar, you’re not allowed to use your own notebook paper? They provide paper for you to use. The sheets are pink and approx. 4″ by 5″ in dimension (I measured with my thumbs, so whatever standard paper measurement is close to that, that’s what these sheets are). You have to use a pencil, and you can have a laptop and a digital camera. You can take photos of the documents, providing there is no flash and you fill out the right forms. So I have photos of almost every letter in the Hale collection now! But I’m not going to post one, because I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.
For both of my research dates, I had to make an appointment ahead of time. I did so by first calling, then emailing Dean Rogers at Special Collections. Dean, who was more than incredibly helpful with all of my initial questions, also gave me advice on how I could get to Vassar from Nyack by public transportation if I needed to, and when I emailed him this past Wednesday about coming in again on Friday, he replied to me so quickly that I couldn’t believe it (yes we have power, and yes we have space; I don’t think the train lines are working. Let me know what time you’ll get here). The first time I went, I spent about an hour and a half in the morning reading through letters and taking photos of them. When my camera died, I transitioned to more handwritten notes. When I went up yesterday, I spent the larger part of the day with the Hale letters and a full-batteried camera.
Special Collections is in the basement of Vassar’s library building (which looks like a castle). When you walk into the room, there are a handful of tables with lamps on them, and all of the chairs face the back wall. This wall is made of glass, and Dean’s desk is on the inside of the next room. The door to the reading room and the door to the second room are controlled by buzzers at Dean’s desk. Each letter, whether it was five paragraphs or five pages, was in a separate folder, and I could only take one folder at a time. Dean kept the rest of the folders in their boxes behind the glass wall. As soon as I finished working with a folder, we traded out for the next one (side note: Dean Rogers is one of the most helpful individuals I have met this year. I hope your research takes you to Vassar College, because he’s great to work with).
I snapped pictures of each page of the letters, but that didn’t stop me from taking the time to read them all and write down a handful of fun quotes. I realized quickly that Sarah Hale has a sense of humor all her own, and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s being sarcastic, or if she really believes what she just said. She likes to be dramatic, too. Here are some quotes:
“It has never seemed to me that a lady should claim the same amount of salary as a gentleman professor.” — to Milo P. Jewett on Feb. 20, 1864.
“Men have never yet considered woman’s learning of much benifit. Loveliness was worth more than Latin.” — to John H. Raymond on Nov. 3, 1864.
“I have suffered too much by this misnomer, using female for woman, to see, with indifference, the blot on the escutcheon of an Institution that I love and honor so truly.” — same letter as previous quote.
“If this ‘consummation,’ so deeply desired — even devoutly supplicated, should be reached before the College is opened, it will add a bright ray on the fast deepening twilight of my life” — to John H. Raymond on Feb. 24, 1865.
“In his views he may of course be mistaken. They do not agree with my own.” — to John H. Raymond (no date) about her son Horatio Hale’s critique of Vassar.
Other fun things I learned about Sarah Hale: She has perfect handwriting. I mean perfect. She started to lose control of her eyesight in the mid/late 1860s. She did concordance word studies to prove her points. She wrote letters to four or five different people consistently over the course of six years about the name change of Vassar College. She wanted the word “Professoress” to exist. She thought that the position of Deaconess needed to be reinstated in the Christian church. She got on Matthew Vassar’s case about his health (and he got on hers). She sent essays with her letters to further prove her points. She sent poetry to friends when she wasn’t feeling well. She had pneumonia for a month in either 1866 or 1867. She promised to visit Poughkeepsie if and only if the name of the College was changed and the “Female” plaque was taken down. She personally took care of Matthew Vassar’s subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book. She was against uniform dress codes and Bloomers.