Better Than a Drinking Fountain

5 January 1891 - Providence, Rhode Island

If you will recall back in September of 2656, I visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in July 1876. All the states and territories had sent exhibitions for what is considered America’s first official World’s Fair. It was the first World’s Fair to have a Women’s Pavilion dedicated to the contributions of females to society. It’s theme would be “The New Century for Woman,” back when women were still fighting for the vote.

Women's Pavilion - Centennial Exhibition of 1876
The Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission did their part for the Women’s Pavilion. They did such a great job raising funds that they were left with a surplus of $1,675. The ladies came up with the grand plan of building a drinking fountain in Roger Williams Park with the left over money.

Then Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf came up with a daring proposal. Why not take the money and start a school of design? The city needed one. With all the jewelry, silverware and textile firms, it would be useful. Of course there would be classes in the fine arts, but School of Design sounded more serious. This was to be a college to train professional designers and artists and not an art school for mere hobbyists.

I’m sure the ladies thought her a bit mad. This was 1877. A bunch of women couldn’t start a college. It was a tempting prospect, though. One worth the gamble. So the 34 women of the committee voted to use the surplus money to start the Rhode Island School of Design.

Early photo of Rhode Island School of Design
Helen Metcalf was made head director, a capacity she held until her death in 1895. Despite its humble beginnings and because of Mrs. Metcalf’s influence and administrative skills, the School of Design has been admired from it’s inception, gaining the respect of even its giant neighbor, Brown University, one of the oldest college’s in the country. When Mrs. Metcalf passes away, her daughter, Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke, will take over until her own death in 1931.

Needless to say, the college was co-ed from the beginning. Since many schools of higher education are closed to women, RISD has attracted many ladies from around the country. For that reason women students currently outnumber men. However male artists have not shunned the school, eagerly enrolling from the very first semester.

The School of Design not only trains artists, but also jewelry designers, fashion designers, graphic artists, architects, photographers, industrial designers and someday even digital designers and animators. It has a library devoted to books on art and design, one of the first of it’s kind in the country. There is also talk of creating a museum, so students and the public can study and admire great art. I believe that will come about in just two years. Eventually it will take up several buildings. Already the name Rhode Island School of Design looks impressive on any resume.

And all because a group of wise women decided Providence had need of something better than a drinking fountain to quench an even greater thirst.

Rhode Island School of Design (125 years later)

Arthur Douglas Collection
first term student of the Rhode Island School of Design

An Incomplete List of Notable Alumni
from the Rhode Island School of Design

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