Founder Thomas May Peirce famously stated in 1893 that “The door of Peirce College has been opened for women, and it remains open, and it will never be shut again.”
Dr. Peirce was referring to the school’s pioneering efforts to make business education curriculums available to women, but it wasn’t just female students who passed through the door he first opened in 1865. Only five years after he made that statement, his eldest daughter, Mary B. Peirce, became principal of what was then known as Peirce School, and she proudly held the position for 62 years until her passing in February of 1960. During her tenure, Mary had the honor of overseeing some of the most prosperous years in Peirce College’s impressive 150-year history of educating working adults.
Mary was a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Dickinson College, though she had little in the way of formal teaching or business experience when she assumed the role of school principal. Well aware of the many prejudices society held against women at the time, she was initially reluctant to take the job, but she found a little encouragement from two prominent Philadelphia businessmen: John Wanamaker and Boise Penrose. It was just the push she needed to take over running the school near the end of the 19th century and continue its trend of success.“The door of Peirce College has been opened for women, and it remains open, and it will never be shut again.”
For the 30 years from 1870-1900, American business and Peirce School had seen tremendous growth, and the world was taking notice. Mary relied heavily on the advice of the leaders her father had put in place in the early years, and her trust paid off as Peirce took home a silver medal and a diploma at 1899’s National Export Exposition in Philadelphia. The following year the school was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition at Paris “in recognition of its pioneer work in business education and its influence among business leaders at the turn of the century.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, Mary refused to sit back and be content with accolades from the past. She developed new programs for the school, like an advertising course in 1901 and a secretarial one in 1910. She established a Spanish-American department that attracted students from Latin American countries. Mary even went so far as to meet some of these students at the docks when they first arrived in the country and provided them with rooms in her own home and personal loans on occasion.
With enrollments climbing steadily in 1915, Mary knew it was time for a move, so she relocated the school to its current location at 1420 Pine Street to better accommodate its growing student body. A few years later, Word War I would begin, and Mary saw to it that Peirce supported the troops through its Comfort Kit Club. That support continued after the war when more than 800 WWI veterans enrolled at Peirce between 1919 and 1926.
In 1920, to meet the changing needs of business students, Mary helped introduce the school’s new two-year education option. By 1935, she had the school reorganized into three departments: Business Administration, Secretarial Training and Specialized Training. Though she continued holding her position until 1960, Thomas May Peirce III also took on a leadership role in 1946 and the school became Peirce Junior College, which it remained as until becoming a four-year school in the late 1990s.
It’s true that Mary introduced many changes to evolve the school to meet the contemporary needs of working adults and the business world. Through her tireless devotion, however, she saw to it that Peirce always kept its one focus.
“The mission of Peirce School is not to train its students to become bookkeepers or stenographers. Its courses of study, it is true, include bookkeeping and other commercial branches, but these are simply means to an end. The true mission of the school is to give its students the general education that will prepare them to become the business leaders of the future.”