Harcum College: The Vision of Edith Harcum

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published January 23, 2002

For Phyllis Bean, being registrar and coordinator of institutional research for Harcum College in Bryn Mawr is more than just a job. She has also documented the school’s history as a part of a master’s degree program at Arcadia University in Glenside.

In doing so, she discovered the strength of personality and vision of its founder, Edith Harcum.

“I was in the last semester of my program and needed to do a research paper,” she said. “I looked at the school and thought it would be a good idea both as a student and as the school’s registrar.”

She began researching the subject at the school in its archives, which includes papers, photographs, yearbooks, catalogs and student handbooks. During this research, she discovered as many questions as answers, so she began to look beyond the campus.

“The oldest available catalog was the from 1936 to 1937, and although there was a lot of information in the school’s archives, I immediately realized that although this primary source information was helpful, it would not provide me with enough information to understand the college’s roots and evolution,” she said.

“I decided to extend my search by visiting the Ludington Library and the Historical Society of Lower Merion,” she said. “I poured over maps of the property dating back to 1863 at the historical society and read through newspaper clippings at the library.”

The main value from these sources was that the maps let her track when the school acquired the properties that make up what is now the school’s campus. The newspaper clippings documented the school and activities surrounding its life, as well as information on Edith Harcum and others. It also gave her information about the school’s bankruptcy and the purchase of the property by the Junto School in the 1950s.

Her research paper was well received and has become a part of the very archives that she explored.

Probably the most important realization to come from this study is that Edith Harcum was, if not a revolutionary, at least a pioneer. She believed that women should be trained to hold a job and have a career. In 1916 when she founded the school, there were few careers open to women, especially to well-bred women.

Edith was also “well bred,” meaning that her father was wealthy and that she’d been taught manners and those lifestyle standards that applied to people of her social level. While both proper manners was necessary, money was the first consideration. There were people of “good families” who were no longer wealthy, but the family originally got to be “good” by at one time being affluent.

Edith was born Dec. 8, 1878, into a prominent Richmond, Va., family. Her father, Dr. William E. Hatcher, was the founder of Fork Union Military Academy and the pastor of Grace Baptist Church there for three decades. Her mother, August, was a talented pianist.

Edith had four sisters and one brother, all of whom played the piano. One, Elizabeth Hatcher Sadler, was an author. Her brother, Dr. E. B. Hatcher, was an author and professor. Another sister, Dr. Orie L. Hatcher, was an instructor at Bryn Mawr College from 1903 until 1915.

Coming from a family of educators didn’t impress Edith as a young girl. In an newspaper interview with columnist Polly Platt, she made that clear: “I fled from education, which was a plague overcoming my family. They wrote 21 books, my father founded schools, my mother was a M.A. cum laude, my sister an authority on Shakespeare. You can see how exhausting. I decided to ignore the academic forever and astonish the world with my music,” she said.

Although she graduated from Women’s College in Richmond and studied short-story writing at Columbia University, music was her passion. Her family even financed two more years of study. Her sister, Orie persuaded Edith to take the position as head of the music department for the Shipley School to finance her musical training. Demonstrating her family’s background, she had studied music in Vienna and Paris as well as at the Curtis Institute.

Edith was in New York City preparing for an audition when she met Octavius Harcum. He was a descendent of one of the earliest settlers in Virginia, Dr. William Harcum, who owned 400 acres in Northumberland County, Va., in 1679.

Octavius attended William and Mary College and studied law at Richmond College. He moved to New York City and entered the New York Stock Exchange. Edith and Octavius were married in February 1913. Two years later, after the birth of their first child, they opened the Harcum School.

That came about because of her belief that music should be a credited course, not extracurricular. To her music was not just an art, but a profession requiring more than just skill and training in music.

Harcum believed that all her girls should strive for self-sufficiency. Instead of a set and rigid course of study, the school sought to meet the needs of each student.

Although Edith believed that all her girls should be educated in the classics, she also wanted them to have a vocational goal. “The Harcum School enabled Edith to put her ideas about women’s education to practice,” said Bean.

There is evidence from Edith’s son, William, believed those feelings stemmed from his mother’s experience in boarding school. “As a schoolgirl, she never received credit for the course she most enjoyed – piano,” he said. “She had feelings of always wanting to make an institution where girls got credit for what skills they wanted to use in later life.”

She found sources quoting Edith on why she founded the school: “We didn’t know what kind of school, of course, but we did expect an eager world.” Three students enrolled, two of whom wanted music and one who demanded full academic courses, said Harcum. “So we opened with five pianos and three students. By providing any courses the students desired, we gradually enlarged the school, always with the emphasis on preparing a girl in one specific talent she could perform well.”

“The first students were from Pennsylvania, Texas and New Mexico,” Bean said. “Janet McKeever was the first and only graduate of the class of 1916,” she said. “Edith was the head of the school from the beginning, and Octavius took care of the finances, but was also deeply involved in the students’ lives. The students adored him and called him Uncle Marvin.”

Bean’s research dug up some remarkable details. In the 1916-1917 school year, 21 faculty taught classes to 15 students, three students graduated and one student transferred to Bryn Mawr College. The faculty taught courses in Latin, German, Greek, English, English diction, French, science, Italian, Spanish, history, mathematics, piano, voice, violin, harp, music appreciation, art, domestic science and sewing, dancing and athletics.

Edith Harcum also had 24 music pupils. Her sister, Dr. Orie Latham Hatcher, was an adviser to the school as were as Dr. Cornelia Gaskins Harcum, director of Latin at Vassar College; Henry Labarre Jayne, a Philadelphia attorney and professor of government at Harvard University; and John Frederick Lewis, president of the Pennsylvania of Fine Arts.

This continued until Octavius was killed in a car accident in 1920. “A student from the class of 1920, Estill Winfree Barksdale, recalled that there was no graduation service that year,” Bean said. But in fall 1921, Edith reopened the school, remaining president until her retirement in 1952.

In 1917, the Harcums had constructed a large Greek Revival building, Melville Hall, which today holds the school’s administration offices. But in 1917, this building housed the classrooms, dormitory and private residence of the Harcums. As the school grew, it acquired 12 houses along Montgomery Avenue. By 1954, the school had purchased five more buildings, including Hatcher Hall, which once was the home of Samuel Rea, a president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But in the early 1950s, enrollment dropped, and on July 7, 1952, Edith Harcum filed for bankruptcy. However, Harcum College would survive. The Junto School, a progressive Philadelphia institution operated by Phillip Klein, purchased the school at a public sale for $125,000.

This ushered in a new and modern era for the school.

The new owners wanted to create an adult residential education program independent of the Junto. Anew board was formed with five members from the Junto School, including Dr. Philip and Dr. Henry Klein and educators from Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College.

The board decided that Harcum should continue to operate as a woman’s college. They also decided to experiment with a weekend residential school on the propriety. Classes began on Friday night and ended on Sunday afternoon. The cost for the weekend was $18 and included meals.

Today the school is no longer sexually segregated, but still helps its 500-some students not only gain an education but prepare for a vocation.

“Our present curriculum represents what Edith started. It isn’t so unusual today, and our students aren’t just the rich young ladies they were then,” Bean said. “But our ideas are the same.”