The Allentown Seminary

The Allentown Seminary, predecessor of Muhlenberg College, was founded in 1848 to prepare students for higher education in the medical, legal, theological, and teaching fields. It was the brainchild of Reverend Samuel K. Brobst, publisher and passionate education advocate. 

Our contemporary understanding of the word “seminary” brings to mind an institution for training members of the clergy; however, in the nineteenth century, the word could refer to a secular institution of learning. There were many “female seminaries” in the United States. The Allentown Seminary was founded with the intention of preparing (male) students for college; however, the well-rounded curriculum was designed for the general education of even those not destined for higher education, to “[prepare] for the various pursuits of life…pupils are trained to think closely on all subjects within their power, and to express their thoughts with freedom and propriety.” 1

In the fall of 1850, the Seminary added a Female Department, under the direction of Miss Evelene Black. The need for an institution to educate girls and young women was necessitated by the closing of Mrs. Young’s Female Seminary, also in Allentown. 

“This fall a Girls’ day-school will be added as a new Department  to the Seminary. Boys and girls will have entirely separate rooms, entrances, playgrounds, &c. Neither will they have any lessons in common, except, singing under the direction of the Principal.” 2 

“It is under the superintendence of the Principal, but taught by a Lady. The most advanced class in Arithmetic and other Mathematical branches are taught by the Mathematical teacher of the male department; Grammar, Composition, Vocal Music, and the Elements of Natural Sciences, by the Principal himself.—Instruction in useful and ornamental Ladies’ work is given without extra charge. This department has its own separate rooms, entrances, playgrounds, &c. Young ladies from the neighborhood can find suitable Boarding in private houses in town.” 

Tuition per five-month term for both boys and girls under the age of ten was $8.00; over the age of ten, boys’ tuition was $15.00, while that of girls was $12.00. Boys were permitted to board at the Seminary. 3

 Thirty-one female students comprised the first class at the Allentown Seminary; that number rose as high as fifty-eight in 1855-1856, and declined to twenty-four by 1861-1862.

As far as we can tell from the archived programs for the Seminary, the female instructors typically remained for a year or two, at most. In addition to Evelene Black, those instructors included Malvina Stanton (French), Mrs. R. M. R. Eyster  (botany),  Mary Jane Greene  (drawing), Mrs. N. Vogelbach (French), A.E. Avery  (French, drawing, painting), and Maria Serfass and Olivia Mease (primary department).

The depression of 1857-1858, followed by the Civil War, negatively impacted the fortunes of the Allentown Seminary, and in 1864 it was reorganized as the Allentown Collegiate Institute and Military Academy, chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to grant college degrees.  In early 1867 the institution was again reorganized as the Allentown Collegiate Institute, and later that year was rededicated as Muhlenberg  College. It appears that female students continued in the Institute until this final transformation.

1 From the Annual Announcement of the Allentown Seminary for the Academical Year Ending September 30, 1850.

2 Ibid., 1850-51.

3 Ibid., 1852.