The Story of Miss Chapin

As part of their study of changemakers throughout history, Class 3 recently learned more about Chapin’s founder, Maria (pronounced “Mar-rye-ah”) Bowen Chapin, through a special presentation by former alumnae director, archivist, and parent Eleanor Southworth.

With the group gathered around her on the rug, Mrs. Southworth began by sharing a special artifact she had pulled from the archives just for this visit, a small painting of Miss Chapin as a child, when she was around the students’ age. She explained that Miss Chapin was born on September 13, 1863, in Wickford, Rhode Island, one of seven children. She traveled extensively throughout her childhood and was tutored at home, apart from the one year she spent at Miss Abbott’s School in Providence.

When she was 25 years old, Miss Chapin moved to New York City and became a teacher, one of the few jobs available to the educated women of the time.  

“She firmly believed that girls should have just as good an education as boys,” Mrs. Southworth explained, noting that this was one of many examples of Miss Chapin as an agent-of-change.

In 1901, the educator started her own school, Miss Chapin’s School for Girls, in a brownstone at 12 West 47th Street.* Class 3 looked on in wonder as Mrs. Southworth showed them the earliest photos of the student body, noting the elaborate, floor-length gowns the girls wore before a uniform was put in place. “Imagine how difficult it must have been for them to play in those dresses,” Mrs. Southworth noted.

She went on to describe Miss Chapin’s personality… stern and strict, but wonderfully fair; brilliant, calm and dignified; with a beautiful voice and command of the English language. Mrs. Southworth then displayed a sample of Miss Chapin’s handwriting, noting her love of penmanship and calligraphy, and explained that the headmistress used to write an original poem for each graduating senior. “Her poems were full of hope and affection for her students,” Mrs. Southworth explained. Here is one of Miss Chapin’s poems, written for Anne Morrow Lindbergh ’24:

You have led us a general
Through our troubles and our pleasures
Never tiring of the task that helped us all,
We have stored away forever
In our box of hidden treasures
Thoughts of Anne that forever we’ll recall.

Next, the students excitedly examined the School’s first official uniform, adopted in 1912, complete with a pleated drop waist skirt and jacket, and bloomers (so that students could easily move when playing sports). This was another example of Miss Chapin as a changemaker… she strongly believed in physical education for girls at a time when most others did not. In fact, Miss Chapin and her students would travel by train to Hartsdale, New York each Saturday, where there was enough open space for students to run and play field hockey, basketball and softball, among other sports.

“Why did the uniforms change?” one student wondered. “Well, the uniforms changed as styles changed, and as fabrics became available that were easier to care for,” Mrs. Southworth replied. She explained that the first uniforms were made of wool, which was itchy and hot in the warmer months and difficult to wash. Over the years, the uniforms evolved into drip-dry fabrics that were much more comfortable and easier to clean. “But, we’ve only had four different uniforms over the history of the School,” she concluded.

As another example of Miss Chapin as an agent-of-change, Mrs. Southworth shared an edition of “Far and Near,” a periodical Miss Chapin edited that helped to educate and unite working women across the United States. Years later as headmistress of the School, Miss Chapin would encourage families – in lieu of giving her holiday gifts – to make a contribution to a scholarship fund for women. Today, Chapin honors her legacy through “Miss Chapin’s Project,” an annual fundraising initiative for various charities.

An ardent feminist, Miss Chapin also participated in one of the very first women’s suffrage parades in 1915, walking over five miles and 90 blocks down Fifth Avenue. “She even paid for a marching band to walk ahead of her and the rest of the private school and college educators who marched beside her,” Mrs. Southworth noted. When a headmistress from another school told Miss Chapin that her marching in the parade would be bad for her school, Miss Chapin replied, “I did not march as the Headmistress of The Chapin School. I marched as Maria Bowen Chapin, and I reserve the right to express myself in any way I want.”

To conclude her presentation, Mrs. Southworth shared one final example of Miss Chapin as a visionary. In 1925, she incorporated the School, enabling it to continue her mission of educating girls long after she was gone. It is thanks in large part to Miss Chapin’s courage and forward-thinking that this wonderful group of Class 3 students is here learning at 100 East End Avenue today.

*The School moved to its current home at 100 East End Avenue in 1928.

Browse photos from the presentation below: