Victorian Girls Doing STEM

By Hans Rasmussen

In this post, Hans Rasmussen uses the diary of Ella Grunewald, a teenage girl in late nineteenth-century New Orleans, to show that, despite various campaigns in recent years to get young women interested in STEM fields, science education for girls is really nothing new.

The first women to matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, working in the chemistry laboratory, in 1878. Left to right: Gertrude K. Peirce, Anna L. Flanigen, and Mary T. Lewis | Image courtesy of the University Archives & Record Center, University of Pennsylvania

Music, not science, was the foundation of Ella Grunewald’s education, as would be expected for the teenage daughter of one of New Orleans’s most prominent sheet music publishers and musical instrument dealers. Her father, Louis Grunewald, was an institution in the musical life of New Orleans during the second half of the nineteenth century, operating a music store that persisted well into the twentieth century, as well as a concert hall that served as one of the city’s premier cultural venues between 1873 and 1892. Not surprisingly, he ensured that each of his children received a sound musical education in a particular instrument (Ella’s was the piano), easy access to a wide assortment of concerts and shows, and an introduction to the inner workings of the Crescent City’s classical music scene. Nevertheless, he also provided the younger of his two daughters with a general education in grammar, literature, history, rhetoric, elocution, art, languages, mathematics, and science. Ella evidently found these last subjects particularly fascinating, as she often documented her encounters with geometry, chemistry, zoology, anatomy, geology, and astronomy in her diary, which she kept between 1884 and 1886.

Ella Grunewald attended the Southern Academic Institute, a private school primarily for girls not far from her home in uptown New Orleans, where she received most of her formal education. On December 2, 1884, she wrote, “I have taken quite a fancy to Geometry, and love to spend my time in solving those theorems. I hope I shall not be obliged to stop on Pons assinorum.” When Ella’s geometry lessons came to an end a year later in favor of more literary subjects, she tried to feel enthusiastic but still lamented, “That cannot reconcile me for the loss of Geometry; —dear old book, how I hate to part with you! what glorious times did I have in solving your problems! but whenever I find time to have recourse to my old studies, you shall certainly be the first.”

An illustration from an 1847 edition of Euclid's "Elements."
Meaning literally “bridge of asses” in Latin, pons asinorum refers to the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid’s Elements. This illustration of the proposition comes from Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of Euclid, which combined strikingly modern color illustrations with an early nineteenth-century typeface that still used the archaic long form of the letter S. (The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid . . ., copy located in LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, Rare QA451.B99)

Despite her proficiency in geometry, chemistry fascinated Ella Grunewald the most, as detailed descriptions of various chemistry experiments enlivened the pages of her diary. No fewer than eleven entries include references to chemistry experiments performed in class, some of them rather explosive.

Wednesday, November 19, 1884

Yesterday was Tuesday, so we performed experiments during Chemistry class, such as preparing O, N, & H. The first two we succeeded splendidly with, then we placed a bit of P and I on a ladle and lowered it in the jar of O, when it became ignited emitting a beautiful purple vapor; we also lowered a lighted candle into the jar of O, when it burned brighter, then we lowered it in the jar of N, which extinguished it with the exception of a spark on the end of the wick, which was again thrusted into the O, when it once more burned brightly.

Sunday, November 23, 1884

Last Thursday, we performed a beautiful experiment, by putting a bit of Potassium in cold water, it has such an affinity for Oxygen that it took it from the water and burnt with a bright flame, while going out it made a sharp report.

Tuesday, December 9, 1884

Today a terrible calamity befell us while we were experimenting, we were intently watching the gas arising above the water, when our mixture exploded, breaking our retort into many pieces, this was the first time anything of the kind had occurred to us, otherwise we succeeded splendidly, one of the experiments was dissolving Potassium Chlorate in Alcohol, and pouring a few drops of Sulphuric acid on it, when it burst into a beautiful blue flame; another, which was very beautiful, was pouring very dilute Sulphuric acid on Zinc & Phosphorus, on darkening the room we perceived fountains of fire issuing from the water.

An illustration from the "Conversations with Chemistry" textbook depicting a science experiment for preparing oxygen gas.
Jane Haldimand Marcet was an English author who published a number of books introducing scientific concepts to young readers. Conversations on Chemistry, her most popular work, presented lessons in the form of a dialogue between two students and their teacher. Marcet drew all the illustrations for the book, such as this one for a method to prepare oxygen gas, an experiment that Ella Grunewald would have performed at her school. (Conversations on Chemistry . . ., 15th ed., copy located in LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, Rare QD30.M3 1846)

Ella’s scientific education was not confined to the classroom. She frequently visited the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, a world’s fair held in New Orleans between December 1884 and June 1885 at the site of what is now Audubon Park. A showcase of art and industry intended to revive the city’s economic fortunes after Reconstruction, the fair also included various scientific curiosities.

Wednesday, January 7, 1885

I have been twice to the Exposition since the opening, and each time have grown more enthusiastic over its wonders of nature; the fossils in particular attracted my attention. I saw an elephant’s tusk petrified, a man’s thigh bone, an animal’s lower jaw, reptiles, shells, etc., all in a state of petrification. I was also interested in the animals, the mammoth, which is on exhibition there, measures thirty-five feet in height, and its tusks measure fifteen feet in length, this huge monster was dug out of a block of ice off the coast of Greenland. Another curiosity was the carcass of a serpent sixty feet in length. We also visited the machinery department where we saw the process of making thread, spools, tape, wire, nails and many other things.

During a visit with her class in early May 1885, Ella’s attention wandered to minerals: “In the morning we examined the minerals of the different states principally among which we saw gold and silver ores, several forms of mercury, sulphur, etc., precious stones, such as emeralds, opals, diamonds, etc. in their rough state imbedded in a solid rock.” Back in school the following December, the subject was astronomy: “We are also learning of meteors and aërolites, in our Astronomy, these meteoric showers are really wonderful coincidences in nature, they [i.e., the Leonids] repeat themselves every thirty-three years, presenting a grand spectacle to the human eye, thus showing another instance of the divine power of God. Many times these showers are accompanied by rumbling noises and falling of aërolites, the latter are noted for their queer compounds of the different metals with which we are familiar, such as iron, copper, phosphoros, etc.”

At the time, the campus of Tulane University stood just behind Louis Grunewald’s combined music store/concert hall in downtown New Orleans. Its proximity to her father’s business provided Ella with easy opportunities to take advantage of programming the university offered to the educated public seeking middlebrow enlightenment. Dr. Stanford Emerson Chaillé, dean of the Tulane School of Medicine, delivered public lectures on various topics in human physiology at the university on Friday afternoons in the winter of 1886. Ella attended lectures on the human voice (January 22), organs of hearing (February 5), and the human eye (February 12). Each week she listened rapturously and recorded extensive notes in her diary, revealing a burning curiosity in most subjects, but not so much on February 19: “Last Friday evening after school we attended Dr. Chaillé’s lecture as usual, where I met Sidney Elder[;] we sat together by an open window which was quite refreshing, either the lecture was not very interesting or I did not pay enough attention, for next day there were few things that I remembered.” Evidently, even the stimulating wonders of science could not hold the attention of a teenage girl all the time.

Hans Rasmussen is head of Special Collections Technical Services at LSU Libraries in Baton Rouge.

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Cover of "A Girl's Life in New Orleans"

A Girl’s Life in New Orleans presents the diary of Ella Grunewald, an upper-middle-class teenager in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century. Grunewald, the daughter of one of the Crescent City’s leading music dealers, used her journal to record the major events of her day-to-day life, documenting family, friendships, schooling, musical education, and social activities. Her entries frequently describe illness, death, and other tragedies. Though attentive to the city’s classical music scene, Grunewald also recounts theater shows, Carnival balls and parades, Catholic religious observances, and the World’s Fair that the city hosted in 1884.

Expertly annotated and introduced by Hans Rasmussen, Grunewald’s journal is a rare window on the life of a young woman in the South between 1884 and 1886. Adding depth to that account, Rasmussen includes a shorter journal Grunewald kept of her family’s travels in Italy and Germany in the spring of 1890. In it, she describes visits to Catholic churches, museums, Roman ruins, and other tourist attractions. Tragically, Grunewald contracted malaria during the latter part of the journey and died overseas at age twenty-two.

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