Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

The "History of History"

Our Glorious Beginnings 

During its first two decades, Vassar College taught very little history. Prospective students had to answer basic questions about U.S. history on their entrance examinations, such as "What was the Missouri Compromise?" and "When was negro slavery introduced into North America?" Sophomores completed an "Outline of Modern History," but almost no historians served on the faculty.

This changed dramatically in 1887 with the creation of the History Department and the arrival of Lucy Maynard Salmon. Salmon, a pioneering social historian, was one of the first women on Vassar's faculty. Urging students to "go to the sources" and discover history for themselves, she directed them not only to traditional documents like laws and charters but also to such evidence from everyday life as train timetables and grocery bills. Salmon herself wrote on such subjects as domestic service and (literally) the archaeological evidence in her own backyard, and she was one of the first historians to use statistical surveys. Her legacy endures in the department today. Many classes continue to emphasize history at the grassroots, and our students become historians themselves, conducting independent research and actively engaging with the complex, diverse, often messy record of the past.

The 1920s

By the time Salmon retired in 1927, Vassar's History Department had grown into one of the college's most prominent and active. While Salmon focused primarily on U.S. history, James F. Baldwin taught from 1897 to 1941, focusing on medieval and modern Europe. Baldwin was the exception among a mostly female faculty: talented women who followed the protocols of the newly-professionalized discipline and obtained PhDs nonetheless were largely barred from careers at men's or coeducational colleges and universities. Women's colleges, therefore, provided a professional home. Of the faculty who taught at Vassar for extended periods before World War II, seven had received their own BAs at Vassar, studying with professors like Salmon and Eloise Ellery (herself a member of the Vassar class of 1897), who from 1900 to 1939 taught the Renaissance and Reformation. These included C. Mildred Thompson, who graduated from Vassar in 1903, returned in 1910, and taught modern U.S. history until 1923, when she became Vassar's dean of the college. Holding that position until 1947, she is remembered as a formidable campus presence.

The 1930s

The next generation of historians, arriving in the 1930s, included Mildred Campbell, who taught England and Modern Europe. Her colleagues at Vassar included alumna J. B. Ross and Alma Molin. Charles C. Griffin, a noted historian of Latin America and U.S. foreign relations, arrived in 1934 and remained at Vassar until 1967; the department today hosts an annual lecture in his name, as well as ongoing lectures from a fund in honor of C. Mildred Thompson.

Evalyn A. Clark '24 and Mildred Campbell

Five years after Charles Griffin arrived, Vassar hired Evalyn A. Clark, a member of the Vassar class of 1924, a dynamic teacher who captivated generations of students. A historian of modern Europe, Clark was famous for teaching with the New York Times in one hand; during and after World War II, she started with contemporary events and then worked backward to locate their roots and causes. In honor of Clark, former students have established the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship. Each year, these grants enable Vassar history majors to undertake travel for archival or other forms of research. Both Clark and her colleague Mildred Campbell were, like their predecessor Lucy Maynard Salmon, pioneers. Both were early advocates of the study of women and gender; Clark was a founding member of the Berkshires Conference of Women Historians, and both Clark and Campbell served as presidents of the conference.

Swift Hall

Swift Hall

In 1941 the department moved to its current home, Swift Hall, a Georgian colonial revival building close to historic Main Building. Originally built as the campus infirmary in 1900, Swift had long been known to students by the nickname "Swift Recovery." According to correspondence in department files, Swift was refurbished for the historians with office desks costing $23.75 each and classroom chairs priced at $6.30.

The Post-War Era

The post-war era brought a wave of new talent, but, in contrast to previous generations, most new faculty after 1950 were men: the noted U.S. historian Carl Degler; Hsi-Huey Liang, who taught German and Russian history; English historian Donald J. Olsen; Jonathan Clark, a colonial and Revolutionary American historian; Donald Gillin, an East Asian historian. Emeritus professors who remain, today, active scholars include U.S historian Clyde C. Griffen, historian of Africa and African-American history Norman Hodges, Renaissance historian Benjamin G. Kohl, scholars of French history Rhoda Rappaport and David Schalk, and historian of Victorian England Anthony S. Wohl.

In the tradition of C. Mildred Thompson, historians have continued to play important roles in college governance. Vassar president Alan Simpson, who oversaw the transition from single-sex to coeducation between 1964 and 1977, was a scholar of Puritanism with a DPhil in history from Oxford. Nancy Schrom Dye, a historian of women, served as dean of the faculty from 1988 to 1994 and went on to become president of Oberlin College.

Recent Years

In recent years the department has hired an increasingly diverse faculty and has developed a fully global curriculum, with offerings not only in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa, but also East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The department continues its tradition of requiring a senior History thesis, which each major completes in consultation with an adviser. Because Lucy Maynard Salmon's successors have continued, over the years, to insist that students do extensive research in primary sources, the Vassar College Library houses an exceptionally rich treasure trove of historical materials for students to use in their coursework and senior projects.

In the tradition of our predecessors, members of the History faculty continue to believe in a useable past, one that strengthens our grasp of the dreams and struggles of our own world. We aim to help students develop their capacities for independent research, critical analysis, and imaginative synthesis. We vary widely in our teaching approaches; what we share are the convictions that research, teaching, and learning are inextricably linked, and that teachers and students cooperate in the experience of historical inquiry. History majors not only receive a superb education; they leave Vassar carrying intellectual passports that help them explore a lifetime of new realms.