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Ivy Hall Library and Higher Education for Princeton Women in the 1870s

As Princeton University celebrates 50 years of undergraduate women, it is worth looking back a bit farther to examine how women pursued higher education in town prior to the mid-twentieth century. A variety of options have been available to Princeton’s women over the century that preceded the first female undergraduate admission in 1969. Some of the earliest records we have found relate to another largely forgotten chapter in Princeton’s history: its law school.

After the College of New Jersey (as the institution was known until assuming the name Princeton University in 1896) established a law school in 1846, benefactor Judge Richard Stockton Field built a brownstone building for its use, but the study of law at Princeton was short-lived. The law school dissolved in 1855, and the building that had housed it became a railroad and canal office.

Ivy Hall, ca. 1870s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP52, Image No. 1837.

John Renshaw Thompson (Class of 1812), a railroad and canal official, married Josephine A. Ward in 1845. After his death, Mrs. Thompson bought the building in 1871. She named it Ivy Hall and allowed the Ivy Hall Library, a women’s library, to use the building for free. (The Ivy Club, one of Princeton’s eating clubs, is so named because they were also first located in Ivy Hall, which they began renting in 1879.)

Catalogue of Ivy Hall Library, 1874. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 337, Folder 1.

The Ivy Hall Library had more than 1,500 volumes by the end of the 1870s, but it was more than a place for women to read. John Frelinghuysen Hageman noted in 1879 that at Ivy Hall women “frequently enjoy courses of lectures on English Literature, History, and the Fine Arts, by some of the professors of” the College of New Jersey and Princeton Theological Seminary. Archibald Alexander Hodge’s Popular Lectures on Theological Themes are the published version of a course he originally offered to Princeton’s women, likely at Ivy Hall. The Princetonian noted that James Murray was offering an English Literature course exclusively to women in 1878. Louisa Maclean’s 1878 lecture notes, found in our Lecture Notes Collection, are probably from this course, which may well have been offered at the Ivy Hall Library.

Louisa Maclean’s lecture notes, 1878. Lecture Notes Collection (AC052), Box 44, Folder 8.

The owner of Ivy Hall, Josephine Ward Thompson, remarried some time later to Thomas Swann, a former governor of Maryland. Upon her death in 1906, she left a bequest of the bulk of her estate to Princeton University for the building of a graduate college, but was a significant benefactor to the town as well. In 1909, when the town of Princeton established a public library, the women of the Ivy Hall Library agreed to donate their collection to assist in its beginning, and the books moved to Thompson Hall. The women’s group did not disband, however, but continued operation as a book club.

Materials related to Ivy Hall Library are on display in the lobby of Mudd Manuscript Library through the end of 2018.


Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Lecture Notes Collection (AC052)

Papers of Princeton

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