“By His Own Exertions”

One of Ezra Cornell’s concerns, reflecting his own meager formal schooling and his belief in the value of education, was that young men with meager finances would be able to attend the new univers-ity. In 1868, he wrote a letter to the New York Tribune detailing “How a Poor Boy Can Pay for his Education.” To make this possible, he insisted on a system of manual labor, so that young men would be able to learn practical skills such as printing or agriculture, while earning enough money to sustain themselves as students. Laboring students at Cornell were paid ten or fifteen cents an hour; tuition was twenty dollars a year. With care, room and board and books could be had for three to five dollars a week. Some students worked while maintaining their studies, but others found they could not keep up with their academic responsibilities while earning enough money to stay in school.

Mr. Cornell received a number of letters asking if a boy could earn enough to pay his own way, or if an additional $100 a year from his parents might allow him to do so. A man with one arm—having left the other on the battlefield—asked if there might be work for him. His remaining arm was sound, he wrote.

But when letters arrived asking if Cornell University was a school where writing and reading would be taught, or if the university would offer courses to compensate for the lack of a good high school education, the answer was no. Cornell University was not to be a remedial institution. It was a university appropriate for scholars who were academically qualified. R. L. Dorr wrote to Mr. Cornell that “You will find thousands of candidates . . . so great will be the rush that it will be an utter impossibility to take them all.” And so it was to be . . .

Cornell University Campus, 1873.
Albumen print photograph

The 1872-73 Cornell University Register states:

“The sums paid for manual and other labor, to such of those as needed pecuniary assistance, have exceeded thirty-two thousand dollars . . .

Fees for instruction, $15 a term$ 45.00
Room, board, lights and fuel, about$220.00

Text books and stationery cost from $20 to $30 a year.”

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Harper’s Weekly. June, 1873.
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State Students

“The University is bound by the terms of the act which created it, to educate, free of all fees for instruction, one student from each of the one hundred and twenty-eight Assembly districts of the State . . . during four years . . . . These State Students are to be selected, by yearly competitive examinations, from the various public schools and academies maintained by the people of New York.”

The number of State scholarships would eventually total 512 per year, funded by the University. The 1872-73 Register further noted: “No distinction of sex is recognized in the competitors—the only aim being to secure the ’best scholar,’ as the law requires . . . . There is no limitation as to department or course.”

The Cornell University Register, 1872-73

James Stephenson. Letter to Ezra Cornell. Newfield, Gloucester County, New Jersey, October 5, 1868.

I am a farmer. I have a tough, strong, hard handed boy of 20, a fair scholar, desirous of becoming a good farmer, handy with tools, and generally intelligent. Can he by his labor and $100 per year sustain himself at Ithaca.
Jay Brown. Letter to Ezra Cornell. Ithaca, New York, October 6, 1868.
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I came to this village with the expectation of working my way through the University which under the existing state of things I find impossible.

The wages amounting to $3.15 per week while the actual expenses cannot be less than $5.00 per week. Your letter in the N. Y. Tribune brought me hither and many others also.

Mrs. C. Warner (mother of John DeWitt Warner). Letter to Ezra Cornell. Dundee, New York, October 18, 1868.
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Mrs. Warner wrote to Ezra Cornell to express her concerns about her son’s ability to balance work and study. Although her son John DeWitt Warner was an able scholar—he had received the Yates County (New York) scholarship to attend Cornell—she worried that his time spent earning living wages detracted from his studies: “He has always found it an easy matter to keep up with his classes, but with the hours for labor deducted, I think he is attempting as many studies as he could do, without allowing for labor. What I fear is that by his attempting to do too much, he will over-reach, & thus lose the profit he might otherwise obtain.”

Entrance Examinations. The Cornell University Register, 1872-73.
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All students who were not transferring from another college or university were required to take entrance examinations in “(1) Geography. (2) English Grammar, including Orthography and Syntax. (3) Arithmetic, and (4) Algebra through Quadratic Equations.”
Cornell University Schedule of Subjects, Hours and Faculty. Fall Term, 1874.
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Cornell University 2006-2007 Course Schedule

Early Cornellians
A. M. Baldwin, Class of 1872.

Alva Morse Baldwin of Groton, N.Y., came to Cornell in 1869 as a transfer student from Hamilton College. A cousin of Samuel F. B. Morse, he graduated in 1872 (despite his photo saying '71), with a Ph. B. (Bachelor of Philosophy) degree in philosophy. He studied in Leipzig, Germany for a year and then taught in various high schools. In 1880 he received an M.D. degree from Hahnemann Medical College and practiced medicine in Groton until his death in 1914.

John Frankenheimer, Class of 1873.

John Frankenheimer of New York City, the son of immigrants from Bavaria, came to Cornell in 1870 and graduated in 1873, with a Ph.B in philosophy. A distinguished scholar and one of the earliest Jewish students at Cornell, he won the English Literature Prize, the Latin Prize, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was named the Woodford Orator and the Class Essayist. He was also a member of Phi Kappa Psi. He later graduated from Columbia Law School and practiced law in New York City until his death in 1917.

Warren Howard Hayes, Class of 1871.

Webb Hayes, Class of 1876.

Webb Cook Hayes, the son of President Rutherford B. Hayes, attended Cornell from 1872 until 1875 when his father was elected Governor of Ohio. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. He had a distinguished military career during the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and finally, at the age of 61, as a department commander on the Italian front and then as a regional commander of the American Expeditionary Force in southern France and North Africa. For his exploits in the Philippines, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died in Ohio in 1934.

Photograph courtesy of Erwin Chan Class of 2000.

Royal Taft, Class of 1871.

Royal Taft of Hawley, Pennsylvania, came to Cornell in 1868 and graduated in 1871, with a B.S. degree in agriculture. A member of Phi Kappa Psi, he was one of the Commencement speakers and received Honorable Mention in English History under Professor Goldwin Smith. After graduation, he helped run the family’s general store before teaching for several years. He then took the Civil Service examination for the Scranton Post Office, where he worked until his retirement. At his death in 1941 at the age of 94, he was Cornell’s oldest alumnus.

Royal Taft kept diaries during his student years, which were the first three years of Cornell University’s existence. He also collected pictures of his classmates and professors, and miscellanea pertaining to student life. These papers are held in the University Archives, Collection 37-5-61.

C. E. Van Cleef, Class of 1871.

Charles Edward Van Cleef of Seneca Falls, N.Y. came to Cornell in 1868 and graduated in 1871, with a B.S. degree. A member of Kappa Alpha, he later received an M.D. degree from the Homeopathic Medical College, where he served as resident surgeon and a member of the Brooklyn Board of Health. He then returned to Ithaca where he practiced medicine until his death in 1896.

John DeWitt Warner, Class of 1871.

John DeWitt Warner, of Schuyler County, N.Y. came to Cornell in 1868 and graduated in 1872 with a Ph.B. degree in philosophy. At Cornell he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, president of the Athletic Association, editor of the Cornell Era, and class prophet. He graduated from the Albany Law School and went into law practice in New York City. He served in the U.S. Congress from 1871 to 1895, advocating free trade principles. He also served as a Cornell Trustee for fifteen years. The author of many articles on a variety of topics in law and the arts, he died in 1925.

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