Eva March Tappan
Throughout her life, Eva March Tappan exhibited a love of learning that imbued her being. From a young age she sought out knowledge both in formal education and in spare time. This brought her to Vassar, where she cultivated her skills in order to bring this joy to others. At first, she taught, directly bestowing knowledge to those who also sought it. In the middle of her life, Tappan changed her path, and focused on writing. She thus became one of the most prolific and important American writers of educational material in the twentieth century. Her more than 45 books worked as textbooks and provided children with access to history, biography and folktales. Tappan’s works reached a wide audience and became a staple in classrooms across the country. Upon her death, Tappan again assisted in the education of others, leaving the majority of her wealth for a scholarship that sent students from her native Worcester County to Vassar College to fall in love with learning as she did.
Eva March Tappan was born December 26, 1854, to Reverend Edmund March Tappan and Lucretia Logee Tappan in Blackstone, Massachusetts. Tappan’s parents had met when his father was studying divinity at Dartmouth and were married in 1849, before he was installed, in 1853, at the Free Baptist Church in Blakestone. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Edmund found work at what a local Worcester newspaper described as “a more demanding pastorate.” Eva’s father died on December 12, 1860, two weeks before Eva’s sixth birthday, leaving her in the sole care of her mother. To support the family, Eva’s mother went to work as a teacher at Smithville Seminary, where her husband had studied before coming to Dartmouth. Eva did not begin a formal education until she was twelve, but her mother’s work allowed her to visit classes in topics of her choosing. At this time, she taught herself to read, while her mother taught her French and mathematics. Eva also pursued knowledge outside of the seminary, reportedly confounding a librarian, when at the age of ten she asked for a book on the Spanish Inquisition, a historical event she had read about in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” As Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft noted in The Junior Book of Authors(1935), “Her childhood was marked by a love of the marvels that lay between the covers of books.”
Eva March Tappan
Eva’s transition to formal education was faultless. The social aspect of school proved no barrier, and she was able to make friends her own age. As she was learning to learn, she made her first foray into teaching when she taught an elderly woman, a former slave, how to read. Her childhood also consisted of summers with her paternal grandmother in New Hampshire where she had plenty of time to play with her numerous cousins. She stayed close to many of these cousins throughout her life including the renowned clergyman, prolific author, educator and college president Rev. Dr. Edmund March Vittum.
Eva Tappan’s education continued in 1871 when she enrolled at Vassar. Her love of learning persisted and expanded as she studied a wide range of topics and participated in a series of extracurricular activities. Eva continued to pursue her love of books, studying English literature and composition, while also expanding her knowledge of language, and exploring mathematics and the natural sciences. She received excellent grades and was among the graduates elected to Mu Chapter in 1898, when Vassar was granted the first Phi Beta Kappa chapter at a college for women.
Outside of class Eva played Julius Caesar in the annual sophomore Trig Ceremony, “Assassination of Trigonometry,” was an editor of the Vassar Miscellanyin her Junior and Senior years, and also wrote for student theater. Her role as class historian led to a speech at her graduation, which one attendant described as “full of sparkle and wit.” Despite her full schedule, Tappan found time for “normal girl activities” and even some adolescent mischief. Because of her relatively sparse financial situation, Tappan rarely returned home for breaks, but had little trouble integrating with the more affluent student body. She found many amiable classmates and also enjoyed what she described as a “choice room” in her senior year.
Immediately after graduation, Eva Tappan started as a teacher. She took quickly to her new role at Wheaton Seminary (later, Wheaton College), teaching Latin, German, algebra and trigonometry. Her love for education was truly tangible, arising from her very being. A student said of Tappan, “she made us feel we were all there to consider something very interesting.” She had no bias when it came to knowledge, displaying,another friend said,a “quick wit, understanding heart and an interest in young people that transcended social or economic status.” After leaving Wheaton Seminary, she moved to the Raymond Academy, a small school in Camden, New Jersey, named after Vassar President John H. Raymond by a preparatory and special student at Vassar, Ida Northrop, who was referred to in The Vassar Miscellanywhen her school opened, in 1886, as “one of Vassar’s most loyal daughters.” Tappan eventually became the academy’s associate principal, a position she held until 1894.
In 1895, Tappan once again turned to her own education and received her Master’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. The next year she earned her Doctorate in English and also published her first book, Charles Lamb: The Man and the Author. She returned to teaching in 1897 when she joined the school department in Worcester, Massachusetts, earning $1,000 a year. In seven years’ time, she became the head of the English Department. Despite receiving the advanced position and the monetary raise that came with it, Eva found that her true calling was her writing. After a yearlong leave of absence, she quit teaching for good and devoted herself full time to pursuits of the pen.
In the Days of Queen Elizabeth, 1902
Tappan’s writing consumed the rest of her life. The Worcester Gazette noted in her obituary that this final stage of her life was “the natural expression of [her] personality.” Writing had long been her passion and now also became her occupation. One of her Vassar classmates described Tappan’s love of writing “just as if writing was an intoxicating beverage.” She wrote prolifically, always having the next book lined up before the previous one was completed. Her books functioned as textbooks and “were designed to acquaint the reader with history, biography or the world around him, to stir imagination and instill a love of literature.” They ranged from a discussion of Chaucer to books on farming and shared the joy she had for learning with as many students as possible. According to the teachers that used Tappan’s works, the books provided “a reliable and painless way of getting knowledge into children’s heads.” Eva more than succeeded Her books had a timeless quality to them, and even long after her death, they were still common fare in classrooms across many states.
Modern Stories, 1907
As her books grew in popularity, Tappan achieved financial security for the first time since her father’s death and moved with her aging mother into a comfortable house in Worcester. Aside from her writing, Tappan got more joy out of life. She spent time in nature, often taking long walks in the New Hampshire mountains. She wrote of herself, “I like to write, to read, to keep house, to travel, to climb mountains, to use tools, to do everything and especially to be alive. I like all animals and most people.” Tappan lived a rather quaint existence, enjoying the simple pleasures. She also took time to give back, involving herself in her community, alma mater, and country. In Worcester, she helped found the Worcester Animal Rescue League and served as the organization’s secretary. She returned to Vassar for the first time since graduation in 1910 and also took on a leadership role as the class secretary. Tappan served her country as the assistant editor on the staff of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I and wrote Food Saving and Sharing. She also wrote The Little Book of Our Country as an inspiration for our fighting men.
Stories of Legendary Heroes, 1907
Eva March Tappan died on January 30, 1930, in her home in Worcester. Her love for education and desire to help others, however, survived, as her will set up a trust for local Worcester women to attend Vassar College. Vassar Quarterly, the following spring, reported that "for the last two years her health has been declining, owing very much to her constant studying and writing; she allowed no other interest to interfere with that and until a month before her death she was planning a translation of a favorite Italian book. . . . Her books were well written, interesting and reliable, the result of thorough work, ones that young people enjoyed reading, and Vassar has reason to know that they were profitable." Between her books and the scholarship in her name, even death could not stop Eva Tappan from educating others.
Eva March Tappan Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries.
Kunitz, Stanley J. The Junior Book of Authors(1935)
“Personals,” Vassar Miscellany, Vol. XVI, No. 3, December 1, 1886.
Green, Frances H., "She Gave a Fortune for Scholarships", Worcester Sunday Telegram, January 6, 1963.
“1875 Class Notes,” Vassar Quarterly, Vol. I No. 1, February 1, 1916.
“Class Notes,” Vassar Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 2, May, 1930