The portrait of Edith Hamilton, painted in 1925 by Lydia Field Emmet, has returned to us beautifully restored. Art Conservator Nancy Pollak repaired damage to the canvas, cleaned and restored the painting and added a new frame for better support. Nancy kindly made a presentation to the Middle School about her process of restoration. We hope you’ll stop by the library to see how beautiful Edith looks now!

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Portrait Restoration: Before and After

Who was Edith Hamilton?

Edith Hamilton was the first Headmistress of The Bryn Mawr School. She was a 1894 graduate of Bryn Mawr College. When she was doing graduate study in Germany, M. Carey Thomas, Dean of Faculty at Bryn Mawr College and a founder of The Bryn Mawr School wrote to offer her the job as the Headmistress. The Bryn Mawr School was eleven years old and had so far been directed by secretaries who did not have the full authority of a headmistress. Edith was twenty-nine at the time and was chosen based on her scholarship, her educational philosophy and her personal qualities. She had never taught or administered anything, though. She accepted the remarkable opportunity but was, “very, very, frightened.”  She later said that as she rode the train to Baltimore, she thought, “If I were put in charge of running this train, I could hardly know less how to do it than I know how to run the Bryn Mawr School.” It was a challenging position, to lead a college preparatory school for girls in a community where educating girls was commonly thought to be bad for their healths. 

Edith Hamilton inspired a kind of awe in the students of Bryn Mawr. She was brilliant, remote and steeped in intellectual thought. An alumna Grace Branham described her presence in this way, “Miss Hamilton . . . was a figure of high, mysterious power. . . [S]he brought in with her the air of having come from some high centre of civilization, where the skies were loftier, the views more spacious, the atmosphere more free and open than with us.” A hush would come over the students when she entered a room or passed them on the stairs. 

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Edith Hamilton

Edith was a scholar with a definite philosophy of education. She had mastered Latin and Greek through instruction in classical texts. Greek culture and literature were her life-long passion. She felt very strongly that education enriched human life, and she shared her views with students daily. Learning was hard work, she believed, but it brought great joy. She frequently quoted the Greek philosopher Plato, saying, “Hard is the good,” and she often shared the words of an 8th Century Greek poet who said, “Before the gates of Excellence the high gods have placed sweat, long is the road thereto and steep and rough at the first, but when the height is achieved then is there ease.” She felt that there was nothing dull about hard work. It was superficial work that was tedious. 

In later life Edith reflected about her time at Bryn Mawr, ” . . . the atmosphere of the school was not dull or depressing. Again and again I saw that delightful thing, an awakening to the joys of knowledge. I remember as if it were yesterday how a girl broke in to what I was saying to her and cried, ‘I want to know everything there is.’ I became convinced that real education was a matter of individual conversion and the result was that I loved teaching far and away more than anything else I did.”  Edith greatest joy was sharing the love of learning. 

Edith Hamilton’s vision of individual conversion was manifest in her habit of meeting individually with students.  Once a month, she talked with each student in the school about her progress. Interestingly, the original school building did not include a Headmistress’ Office, so Edith would meet with the students sitting on the granite stairs. She was an awe inspiring figure to the students but descended from the heights to have an intimate conversation with each learner. One alumna who went on to become a college president, Millicent Carey McIntosh, described, “Even though she was so great and so distant in many ways, she could say just the right thing to make us want to do more or better than we were doing.”  Under her guidance, the school grew from sixty-four students to as many as three hundred at one point. 

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Study Hall

Edith Hamilton had a wonderful sense of humor. Although the students would never have guessed, when one of them misbehaved, she sometimes had difficulty not laughing. In her speech given at the 75th anniversary of Bryn Mawr, she said,

“As I look back at those early years, I had a difficulty which I am reasonably sure nobody suspected. I found it hard to take the school sins as seriously as it was really necessary for me to take them, inasmuch as the only punishment inflicted for them was an interview with me, and often they were the kind of thing anyone would want to laugh over. One illustration I will allow myself. The girl concerned was . . . of an original and adventurous turn of mind. She got up early one morning and worked very hard in the fields around her home putting what she collected into a tightly closed bag. She got to the school before anyone was there and again worked busily in the big assembly room that was filled with desks …  There was a bit of disturbance just before prayers, but I could not make out where it was and during prayers all was in order. But then — the desk tops were all raised and out flew from every one a lot of large and lively grasshoppers. I don’t need to describe the scene — it could not be described, but you can all imagine it — although I don’t believe any of you could guess how long it was before the school house was completely cleared of the creatures. The perpetrator of this terrible deed was brought to me to convict her of sin. Before I could I had to stop laughing.”

Edith established many school traditions. For example, she helped to set up the first basketball game against St. Timothy’s School. In 1901, she and her friend, the headmistress of St. Tim’s, decided it would be fun to have their teams play one another. This was unheard of for girls schools, and some worried that the girls’ names might appear in the newspaper. (Custom dictated that women should only be mentioned in the paper when they came out as debutants, married or died.) Edith solved the problem by contacting each newspaper, making the editors promise not to print student names. The game was on. One hundred and eighteen years later, the annual tradition is still going strong.

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The 1909 Bryn Mawrtyr

When Edith Hamilton headed Bryn Mawr, the school was still located on Cathedral Street in the city. For athletics, students would travel by streetcar to Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s country house on Lake Montebello, where there were fields and tennis courts. The school would also host weekend “slumber parties” for the students. When Edith Hamilton chaperoned, she was famous for telling the students terrifying ghost stories. Edith was serious and scholarly, but she was also full of fun.

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Bryn Mawr Students at Montebello

Edith Hamilton led the school for twenty-six years, from 1896-1922. During her tenure, she did much to shape the school’s culture and traditions and made many important contributions. She wrote the school prayer, started the first house system and began the Alumnae Association. She also advocated strongly for offering financial assistance to capable students who otherwise would be unable to afford the school. 

After she retired from Bryn Mawr, Edith began a second career as an author. Friends persuaded her to start writing about the classical literature and culture she knew so well. She wrote many bestselling books such Mythology, The Greek Way and The Roman Way that popularized classical culture. Her books are still in print, and Mythology is still read by Bryn Mawr Middle School students today.  

EH Books

Edith Hamilton often shared Aristotle’s definition of happiness: “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope.”  The definition might be a a fitting description of her well-lived life.

Bibliography

Beirne, Rosamond Randall. Let’s Pick the Daisies. The Bryn Mawr School, 1970.

The Bryn Mawr School Bulletin: 75th Anniversary Edition. 1960-61.

Di Cataldo, Elizabeth. Ex Solo Ad Solem. The Bryn Mawr School, 2011.

Hamilton, Edith. “A Message.” The Bryn Mawr School Bulletin 1958-1959.

Reid, Doris Fielding. Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. W.W. Norton, 1967.

Shoemaker, Mary Armstrong. “The Legacy of Edith Hamilton.” The Bryn Mawr School Archives.

Van Bibber, Katharine. “Edith Hamilton.” 75th Anniversary Publication. The Bryn Mawr School Archives.

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