By George E. Thomas


As the 19th century entered its final decade, Philadelphia stood as the mightiest manufacturing center in the nation, and the University of Pennsylvania—relocated a quarter-century earlier across the Schuylkill River to West Philadelphia—was its training house and research laboratory. But in the mid-1890s a series of national and local events converged to transform the University’s central narrative from this utilitarian model to a collegiate ideal imitative of England’s Cambridge and Oxford universities, in which the University increasingly saw itself in competition with Eastern elite colleges like Princeton and Harvard.

In 1893, at the American Historical Conference in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the closing of the American frontier and the end of an era of social transformation made possible by the freedom that the frontier promised. Euro-culture and East Coast establishments moved to fill the void—represented most clearly by the triumph of classicism for the architecture of the Chicago Columbian Exposition where Turner gave his lecture.

Meanwhile, factory workers in Philadelphia accepted the devil’s bargain of scientific manager Frederick Winslow Taylor, taking higher wages in exchange for lessened work conditions —but in the process turned the nation toward the consumption culture of the present. In 1899, a Philadelphia-based advertising company, N. W. Ayer & Son, turned a biscuit into a phenomenon with its campaign for National Biscuit Company’s “UNEEDA” Biscuit. Over the next generation, Americans would learn to use media to shape identity and to create desire.

In the same decade, under a provost trained in the retail world, Penn repositioned itself from an important local university to one with national pretensions. This was symbolized by the simple act of re-dating its founding from 1749 to 1740 and by the complex one of reshaping its campus away from the free Victorian designs of buildings such as College Hall and Frank Furness’s University Library (now the Fisher Fine Arts Library) to the anglophile academic Gothic represented by Cope and Stewardson’s Quadrangle dormitories. Simultaneously, Penn transformed its old identity as workplace to the new leisure age with the construction of the nation’s first student union, Houston Hall, and the city’s first important athletic field, Franklin Field, where Penn’s juggernaut football team would play.

The story of this transformation was carried in new alumni publications aimed at enhancing Penn’s reputation and building loyalty among recent graduates, such as The Alumni Register (later The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle), published by the General Alumni Society starting in 1896; and Old Penn, founded as the official publication of the University in 1902, renamed The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1918, and published by the Alumni Society since 1925. The signal event was the debate over the founding date of the University that began in 1896 when The Alumni Register promoted the story that the University’s origins lay in George Whitefield’s Charity School that was ostensibly founded in 1740. Because this school was to be located in the church building later acquired by the board founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 to house his new Academy, it could be claimed as the beginning of the University.

Besides explaining the statue of the impassioned George Whitefield preaching that stands in the Quadrangle, this mergers-and-acquisitions model of institutional history had the desired effect of placing Penn ahead of Princeton in academic processions that in turn represented, in highly schematized form, the pecking order of American higher education. (The year before, in 1895, elite universities banded together to establish a national system of academic regalia that asserted an age- and class-based hierarchy and was most obviously expressed by placement in academic processions.)

With the 1740 date, instead of being number five or even six in the line of American higher education, Penn was fourth, following only Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693 first fundraising, 1700 first classes), and Yale (1701), and ahead of Princeton (neČ the College of New Jersey, 1744), and Columbia (originally New York’s King’s College, whose first college classes were held in 1754, antedating Penn’s by a year). In 1899, to settle the issue once and for all, Penn’s board of trustees passed a resolution declaring that henceforth, 1740 would be the official date of the founding of the University “because that was the date of the earliest of the many trusts the University has taken upon itself.”

Not coincidentally, this battle over Penn’s identity began when Penn’s leadership shifted from a scientist, William Pepper, M. D. (provost from 1881 to 1894) to a retailer of sugar, Charles Custis Harrison, who would serve from 1894 to 1910. Instead of celebrating the scientific and creative achievements of the laboratory and the classroom, Harrison’s marketers shifted Penn’s identity from the research arm of Philadelphia’s industrial culture to its place among the nation’s socially elite academic institutions. Ironically, while Penn was allying itself with the national elite culture, much that was innovative in Penn’s actual history was temporarily lost.

By redating Penn’s roots, the University obscured the connection to Franklin’s transforming vision that shaped American higher education, expressed in his Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, written in 1749. Lost as well was the significance of the University’s ethnically and religiously diverse student population, who were here in Philadelphia because of William Penn’s policy of religious toleration that set his commonwealth apart from other American colonies. By 1760, Franklin’s college and academy was drawing from other colonies and nations, differing from the monocultures of the New England colleges that typified college life in the American colonies.

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