Sophia Smith lived in Hatfield, Massachusetts, from the day she was born, 27 August 1796, until the day she died, 12 June 1870. Sophia was born to Lois White Smith and Joseph Smith, one of seven children. The Smith family achieved local notoriety for their thrift, but the Smith women also demonstrated a desire and flair for fashion. The book Sophia Smith and the Beginnings of Smith College relates the story that while following his family into a meeting, Joseph Smith remarked, "There go my wife and daughters with thirty bushels of rye apiece on their heads." It was the family's frugality that enabled Sophia's uncle, Oliver Smith, to accumulate nearly half a million dollars, which provided the funds to found Smith Charities and Smith Vocational School. Austin, Sophia's brother, was an even greater miser than Oliver, and it was his fortune that Sophia inherited and eventually gave to establish Smith College.
Information about Sophia's life remains sketchy. Three of her siblings died before reaching middle age. Her brother Joseph married and moved down the street from Sophia, who remained in the family homestead with her brother Austin and her sister Harriet.
Sophia went to school in Hatfield for approximately seven years and then traveled to Hartford, where she enrolled in classes at an academy for one term. Records show that she also attended the Hopkins Academy in Hadley for an additional year, making her well-educated by the standards of her time.
Two hundred years after her birth, Sophia Smith is celebrated not so much for the way she lived her life, but for the wisdom and generosity of her will. Her bequest of nearly $400,000 for the founding of Smith College has influenced the lives of the more than 60,000 women who have attended Smith.
Sophia left no bundles of letters and no scrapbooks; however, at the urging of her pastor and advisor, John M. Greene, she began a journal in 1861. Several scholars have studied her journal in an attempt to reconstruct the life and thoughts of Sophia Smith, but it relinquishes few clues. It is probable that she wrote as if John M. Greene were going to be the primary reader. After all, Greene had suggested keeping the journal, and while on her death-bed, Sophia asked that the journal be given to him.
While the journal covers primarily spiritual topics, one aspect gives a small window into the life of Sophia Smith. She frequently mentions what she has been reading and what her opinion is of the work. By examining her reading list(s) it is possible to reconstruct some of her interests and influences.
Compiling a list of the books Sophia mentioned in her journal is a challenge because she often neglected to divulge who the author was or which work of a certain author she had read. My research raised more questions than answers. For instance, when Sophia wrote on 29 January 1865 that she had "just been reading Gail Hamilton's works" and that she "like[d] them very much," it was fairly easy to determine which books Hamilton had written by that date. Since Sophia also mentioned reading the chapter on prayer, it is easy to deduce that she had been reading Stumbling Blocks, since that is the only Hamilton work printed before 1865 with a chapter on prayer. But when Sophia mentioned reading about the lives of Cleopatra, Marie Anjou, and Marie Antionette, she gave no indication as to the author(s).
The most accurate information regarding Sophia's reading choices surfaced during research in the Smith College Archives. A February 1944 article in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly written by the college archivist, Margaret Storrs Grierson '22, related the discovery of a box of books in the basement of College Hall. What made these books special was that most, if not all, had belonged to Sophia Smith. Grierson created a record of each book found in the box. When a lengthy search in 1996 uncovered twenty-six of the books in the Alumnae House, an even clearer picture of Sophia's reading was revealed. With the knowledge of specific titles and authors, scholars may examine the content of her books and develop a better understanding of the intellectual focus of her reading.
"Sophia's Choice" is an annotated bibliography of the books that Margaret Storrs Grierson '22 believed to be part of Sophia's personal library. Notes have been added from Sophia's journal. Any additional books published by the author are also listed, since the number of books published by the author may give some indication of her or his popularity. Also, if Sophia appreciated the author's style or approach to the topic, she may have read other works by the same author. On each entry an indication is made as to whether or not the book has been recovered. The last three entries represent the many authors Sophia Smith mentioned in her journal, but apparently did not include in her personal library.
Both the Grierson article and an earlier Smith Alumnae Quarterly article by John M. Greene indicate that Sophia Smith also subscribed to a number of magazines and several newspapers, among them The Springfield Republican, The New York Herald, Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly. It is also likely that she read many of the books purchased with her donation to the Smith Literary Society of Hatfield.
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