In 1927, Millicent Todd Bingham, an author, geographer and the first editor of the poems of Emily Dickinson, reflected on her last tour of New England with her friend the late Florence Cushing ’74:
We came out upon the high road to Plymouth and soon drove up to Plymouth Rock. As we stood looking at it, Miss Cushing talked of the Pilgrims, of their courage and their lofty aims and of their gentleness as well…. What a picture she made as she stood there extolling the virtues of those ancestors of hers, herself the vivid embodiment of all that was best in them, but mellowed and sweetened through the centuries—no less uncompromising but more loving, more understanding of those who cannot always live upon a mountain peak. For in her there was dignity without coldness, accuracy without pedantry and austerity without harshness. Her slight figure beside Plymouth Rock could be the emblem of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The first Vassar graduate to serve as a trustee of the college, Cushing felt deeply connected to her heritage as an American woman, exhibiting an immense reverence for Plymouth Rock as a symbol of American identity. She also saw her college as a staple of the revolutionary American identity she prized. Thus, on May 11, 1901, Harvey Hubbard, the curator and librarian of The Pilgrim Society in Plymouth, MA, wrote to her, saying “I have forwarded the piece of Plymouth Rock, as you desired, to Vassar College. It was taken by me from a piece of the original ‘Rock,’ which was broken off when the foundations of the canopy now over the ‘Rock’ were put in previous to 1859.”
The fragment of Plymouth Rock, Cushing’s gift to Vassar, was to be placed over the door of the New England building, which the New England Vassar club raised the funds to erect. The dedication of the building took place on January 8, 1902.
Cushing seems to have associated the rock with those whose pursuits she felt represented the pioneering tradition of the Pilgrims. In her memoir More Than Lore: Reminiscences of Marion Talbot, Dean of Women, The University of Chicago, 1892–1925, Talbot recalled a similar gesture in 1895 at the time of her departure from Boston for the Midwest, where she was to be a department head and dean at the newly established University of Chicago:
Florence M. Cushing, an honored graduate of Vassar College with whom I had done educational work for several years, pressed into my hand a small carved box. In gentle and rather solemn tones she said, “It contains a piece of Plymouth Rock.” I felt the gift was rather symbolical of the attitude of Boston educators to the new undertaking. Those were shifting and perilous sands out there on the edge of the prairie, as it seemed to the dwellers on Beacon Hill. I must be reminded that the United States, at least my part of it, was founded on a rock; I might forget that four of my ancestors landed from the little ship “Mayflower,” and be tempted to follow strange gods unless I had some forceful, though symbolical, reminder close at hand.
For Cushing, the Pilgrim artifact over the entryway to Vassar’s new science building symbolically instilled something of America’s foundational strength in those who pursued pioneering endeavors. It remains a vibrant, if sometimes overlooked, tribute to its donor and her college.
Marion Talbot, More Than Lore: Reminiscences of Marion Talbot, Dean of Women, The University of Chicago, 1892–1925.
“Curator Sent Plymouth Rock to Zoology Building in 1902,” Vassar Miscellany News, November 7, 1962.
“Florence M. Cushing, Vassar Trustee, Dead,” The New York Times, September 24, 1927.
Florence Cushing. Biographical File. Vassar College Special Collections. (VCSC).
New England Building. Subject File. VCSC.
“Florence Cushing,” Vassar Encyclopedia.