An Obscurity among Obscurities: Miss Laura de Valin

One thing that has surprised me about the members of the WLCB is that so many were published authors. As I’ve been reviewing the transcription of the minutes taken by the indefatigable Lydia Crane, I’ve looked up members here and there to see what became of the works they read during the club meetings, to see if they had a life outside of the club.

Today I found an interesting connection between Club members’ writings and Hunter’s research on the Lutherville Female Seminary.

The minutes for April 10, 1900 relate that a Club member named Miss Laura de Valin read two of her poems, “In the Heyday,” and “A Sonnet.” A quick initial Google search for “Laura de Valin” uncovered this interesting document held in the Johns Hopkins University Library Special Collections, a piece of sheet music titled “A Parting Ode” written by Miss de Valin for the Lutherville Female Seminary in 1859!

The music has a frontispiece for the school which corresponds closely to the image Hunter included in his post.

parting ode
Front cover of “Parting Ode” by Laura de Valin, 1859.

I am leaping to the conclusion that this Laura de Valin is the same as the one who belonged to the WLCB because their names are so unusual– additional genealogical research would be necessary to confirm that this is true.

Assuming it is, then finding this sheet music tells us something about the age of Miss de Valin, and also links her with the Lutherville Female Seminary. Based on the amateurish quality of the verse, I would guess that de Valin may have been a student at the Seminary when she wrote this “ode,” which would make her about 60 years old at the time of the Club meeting where she read her poems.

That would mean that she would have been a young woman during the Civil War, which perhaps explains why she remained unmarried. Membership records show that she lived at 1214 Madison Ave., just a few blocks west of where I live now. She joined in 1899-1900, and left the club (or passed away) sometime before the 1904-1905 season. So her tenure in the club was brief.

Miss de Valin, I discovered, also was a playwright– a “Bibliography of Plays by Marylanders, 1870-1916” published in the Spring 1972 issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine lists two plays by a Laura V. de Valin: The Chaperon; A Comic Opera in Three Acts, from 1892, and Elisa, A Drama in Five Acts, from the same year.

In search of copies of the plays, I checked the MD Historical Society catalog (MDHS publishes the Maryland Historical Magazine, so I thought perhaps the bibliography of plays was based on manuscripts in their collection). I didn’t find the plays there, but I did find out that she edited a journal titled The New Pedagogue: A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Public School Interest of Baltimore, right around the time she belonged to the club. So that tells you that she was a teacher. Perhaps she was a teacher, rather than a student, at Luther Female Seminary. (Again, I am assuming that all of these Laura de Valins are the same person.)

It all makes you wonder: who was Laura V. de Valin? What kind of life did she lead? Did she crave a theatrical life, or was she committed to her work as a teacher? Did she live alone, or with family? What was she like? And what were her dreams?

Only further research will be able to answer these questions about this member of the Club–and we will probably never know about her dreams. But this little tidbit of information points to the ambition and wide-ranging intellect and interests of even the most obscure Club members.


Women’s education in Baltimore: Goucher & Lutherville

A few weeks back, I wrote about my interest in the Lutherville Female Seminary, a now defunct college in Baltimore County that was devastated by a fire in 1911. This week, I’ll be focusing on the kinds of education offered at two early Baltimore area women’s colleges with connections to the Club—The Woman’s College of Baltimore City (now Goucher College) and the aforementioned Maryland College for Women in Lutherville—as well as their roles in Baltimore society.

In Anna Knipp and Thaddeus Thomas’ (quite extensive) The History of Goucher Collegethey quote an 1860 article of the Saturday Review which encapsulates, almost hilariously, how untenable the denial of mental equality between the genders can be: “The great argument against the existence of this equality of intellect in women is, that it does not exist. If that proof does not satisfy a female philosopher, we have no better to give.”

But we can see this kind of circular logic as exemplifying just how absurd this viewpoint had become. In 1860—and especially in Baltimore—it could no longer be defended.

First, though, it’s only right to note that the higher education of women in Baltimore had initially failed—twice. The first of these failed institutions was initially on St. Paul Street: The Baltimore Female College, funded by the Methodist Episcopal Church, opened its doors in 1848 and closed them in 1890. Then there was The Mount Washington Female College of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which opened in 1856 and closed in 1860. This latter school, though, is of particular importance to us at Loyola: it was sold to the Catholic Church and eventually became Mount Saint Agnes College, which merged in 1971 with Loyola College as it became co-educational. It’s part of our heritage.

But in her book In the Company of Educated Women, author Barbara Miller Solomon points to a tremendous boom in women’s education between the 1870s and 1910s. Although she makes no mention of the Lutherville Seminary (which seems, as I lamented in my last post, to have been practically erased from the annals of history), she does make mention of two Baltimore schools: The Woman’s College of Baltimore and the College of Notre Dame in Maryland.

Facade of Old Goucher College, or the Women’s College of Baltimore City, at 2227 Saint Paul St.

Like the Lutherville Seminary, what strikes me—and Solomon—about these two schools is their religious roots. As for the College of Notre Dame, the religious connection is obvious; in fact, it was the first Catholic women’s college in the United States. But as for Goucher college, its religious roots are more obscure—it received much of its funding from the Methodist Conference in 1884. But it runs deeper than that; as Solomon points out, these schools “adhered to the religious ideal of virtuous, True Womanhood,” and more overtly religious schools such as Notre Dame stressed “religious rather than academic ideals.”

But, apparently, Notre Dame and present-day Goucher offered some of the best education available to women at this time, and “extended woman’s sphere beyond the familial roles.” Solomon attributes this, in no small part, to the proximity and influence of Johns Hopkins University—then also present in downtown Baltimore, as opposed to its present-day Homewood Campus. In fact, she points to The Woman’s College of Baltimore City as being rivaled in terms of its “high intellectual standards” by Randolph-Macon College for Women in Virginia (sponsored by Presbyterians).

From the very beginning, The Woman’s College of Baltimore City did much to emphasize its academic rigor. It was no “seminary”; it was a college, and one of the finest available for women. Consider the statement of Bishop Andrews, quoted here in its entirety:

I would not give a fig for a weakling little thing of a seminary. We want such a school, so ample in its provisions, of such dignity in its buildings, so fully provided with the best apparatus, that it shall draw to itself the eyes of the community and that young people shall feel it an honor to be enrolled among its students.

But what of seminaries? Clearly, their reputations were less stellar; according to Bishop Andrews of Goucher, they were something to be scoffed at. But the Lutherville Female Seminary was not exactly a joke; information is scarce, but even in its infancy in 1853, its classes included “moral and mental philosophy, handwriting, ancient languages, natural philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, German, English literature, music, drawing, and painting.” Its reputation eventually became such that students attended the school from out of state, whereas its initial students seem to have come primarily from the city and the county. In 1895, it was appropriately rechristened the Maryland College for Women.

Facade of Maryland College for Women in Lutherville, prior to fire and restoration in 1911.

But, in spite of the grandeur of its facade, conditions within the Seminary were gloomy. The Heritage Committee of the Greater Timonium American Bicentennial Committee (!) dug up an invaluable insight into the daily lives of the students there. The reminiscence of an alumna is printed in their volume The Limestone Valley. Here’s an excerpt:

The school building was large and insufficiently heated. The girls went around the house enveloped in shawls and then were not warm. There was a large dormitory with about thirty beds and each bed was a little apartment with curtains for a dressing room. The provision for the table was also very primitive; bread, butter and molasses for breakfast and supper, with tea or coffee and ham, potatoes and hominy for dinner.

But what’s most remarkable about the Lutherville Seminary is that it existed at all. According to The Limestone Valley, it was from the very beginning meant to be the center of the community; in their words, “the village of Lutherville was planned around the Lutherville Seminary.” Lutherville is rather unique to Baltimore county (largely an amalgamation of unplanned, spontaneous demiurban sprawl) in that it was a planned community. Its street grid was very deliberately laid out, and has hardly changed in a hundred and fifty years.

In this respect, one can rightly call Lutherville a community that was, from its very inception, centered around women’s education. In the 1850s, this was progressive. And to Lutheran founders John G. Morris, Charles Morris, and Dr. Benjamin Kurtz, it was never to be a “weakling little thing of a seminary” at all—it was to be a “first rate Female College.” And that’s what it became.

Halls of memory

Having lived my entire life in the same house in Baltimore County, at the age of thirteen or so I scoured the internet for whatever history I could find about my neighborhood. There wasn’t much of it at all. But I do remember two discoveries: (1) a member of the Padian family dodging the Civil War draft by running off and hiding in the woods with his sweetheart (I haven’t been able to find anything about this since, and I’m beginning to realize it probably didn’t happen at all); and (2) the burning of the woman’s college in Lutherville.

I was glad to discover I didn’t make the second one up. On the meeting of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore on Tuesday, January 31st, 1911, a mention of the disaster is made. The recording secretary (who I now know to be Lydia Crane) writes, “The President spoke of the misfortune that has befallen our member, Mrs. Gallagher and her husband, in the destructive fire at the Maryland College at Lutherville, the institution of which they are the principals and owners.” Mrs. Reese makes the motion that a “letter of sympathy and regret” be sent to the Gallaghers.

Two months later, on April 11th, the fire is mentioned once more. Now back in attendance, Mrs. Gallagher closes the meeting with an original composition—a poem entitled “The Hall of Memory,” which allegedly owes its inspiration to the fire. Crane writes, “Mrs. Gallagher was given the tribute of moist eyes and rapt attention.”

Regrettably, minutes don’t give any more details of the Lutherville fire than that. And I don’t know what kind of literary chops Mrs. Gallagher might have had, but I can’t find the poem either. I can only assume that it’s lost to time.

But stumbling upon a mention of the fire in the minutes did get me to do some of my own research.

The Maryland College for Women at Lutherville, initially the Lutherville Seminary, constructed in 1853, stood at the corner of Francke Ave and Seminary. It occupied a large estate within view of the Jones Falls and overlooking what is today the light rail (then the Northern Central Railway).

The fire broke out around midnight of January 31st—the very day the Club discussed it. According to the Baltimore Sun, the fire began when someone “threw a lighted match down the waste paper chute”—all other accounts I have read of it, however, attribute the fire to smoking. There were seventy-five women present in the building. All escaped unharmed, with one student from Boston, Ruth Keeney, having to jump out the window. Villagers reportedly threw open their doors to get them in out of the cold.

The only individual to sustain any injury of significance was Dr. G. W. Gallagher—our Club member’s husband. In an effort to save some of the rarer articles in his library, he burned two fingers. Our Club member reportedly had to pull him away from the fire, and she telephoned the teachers to wake up the girls. The Baltimore Sun reports that he was “dangerously ill. The shock of the catastrophe has given him a serious relapse and he is now at a cottage near the institution.” He was “kept under medical attention.” It is reported that everything in his library was lost.

The building was burnt beyond repair, but it was eventually reconstructed—though with little of its original grandeur. It closed its doors in the 1950s, and is presently the sight of College Manor, an assisted living facility.

Seminary avenue is one of the most frequented roads in Baltimore County, but few people realize it’s named after a ruined institution. There are no historical markers on the site—only a run-down stone gateway, choked with vines. It doesn’t seem right to me that Mrs. Gallagher’s poem should be lost; the college ought to be immortalized.