A brief history of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education

80 Years of
Community, Knowledge, Engagement, Adventure

Community: it’s a grand word. But what does it mean? It means people working together for common purposes. And the people that get that work started we call community leaders.
Here’s a community leader: William Manning Vaughan. We don’t have a picture of him, sadly. Vaughan was a Maine boy, born in 1807. When he grew up, like many a Maine lad, he went to sea, in his case in the India trade. Subsequently, he became a banker, manager of a flour mill, and ran a brush manufacturing business here in Cambridge, Masschusetts. After making his fortune, he retired around 1860 and became a philanthropist and community leader. Nothing shy about William. He became a prominent member of his church. He served as a president of the Cambridge Humane Society, an organization particularly interested in helping and improving the health of the “indigent sick.” He was also the founding treasurer of a national organization trying to introduce kindergartens to this country.

And yet he was not finished being a community leader, for there were still other social problems plaguing Cambridge. In January, 1871, he called a meeting of community leaders to create an “institution for the comfort and bettering of working-men and working-women” that would provide “innocent amusements and means of social and intellectual improvement.” They called it the Social Union. And Vaughan would be its leader until he retired in 1885, just six years before his death in 1891.

Rev. Samuel Longfellow

Let’s turn to another term: engagement. It’s good to get people involved. But no organization can run on sweat alone, and the Social Union found it was limited in what it could do without a permanent home. A decade after the Social Union was founded, it received its first bequest. Jacob Meade of Boston, a former Cambridge resident, had seen the work of the Social Union, and chose to assist it. He left the Union $2,000 in 1881. A number of other residents also chose to support the Social Union, and several similar-sized bequests followed. They went into a building fund.

When Vaughan had retired, one of the founding vice presidents had stepped up to become president of the Social Union. His name was Rev. Samuel Longfellow. (You’ll be seeing that name a lot.) He was the younger brother of the famous poet. Longfellow committed the Social Union to buying the old Brattle House for $9,000 in 1889.

The original idea was to tear down the house. But they had a change of plans when their architect looked at the house. His name was Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr., and, yes, he’s another family member. He found that the building was in far too good a shape to destroy. So the Union put $3000 into renovations. On top of that, they decided to build an additional facility that would have the sort of performance spaces the Brattle House lacked. Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr. was the architect, of course, and the new Brattle Hall was built so quickly it opened at the beginning of the very next year, on January 27, 1890.

Brattle Hall and Brattle House

By 1910, the Social Union had a library and reading room, music rooms, a small laboratory, and classes in over forty subjects which it offered to the people of Cambridge. It engaged with the community in other ways as well. The Union often lent out some of its space to other new and growing Cambridge organizations. It had a decades-long relationship with the Cambridge Dramatic Club, which put the theatrical space in Brattle Hall to good use. And to this day, its successor, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, gives courses in music, dance, and theater.

Knowledge has been so important to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) that it can even be found in the history of the Center’s buildings. For at one time, the Brattle House had been owned by the Fuller family, whose most famous member is Margaret Fuller. Sometimes considered the best-educated woman of her day, Margaret was a teacher, reporter, writer, editor, and philanthropist. She supported the cause of education and of women’s rights. Her most important work, Women in the Nineteenth Century, originally began as an essay in the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial. And like many in the Transcendentalist movement, she was a supporter of the Brook Farm commune.

And she was adventuresome, too, traveling the country, actually staying overnight in Sing Sing prison to understand conditions there, and becoming one of the first European correspondents for an American newspaper, where she got caught up in the Italian phase of the Revolution of 1848. CCAE is proud to honor its connection to Margaret Fuller in many ways. She’s been covered in history courses here, and the Center continues to offer courses on journalism and contemporary issues.

Now, we’ve talked about the Social Union quite a bit. But how did it become the Cambridge Center for Adult Education? Education had been only one of the purposes of the Social Union. But the idea of adult education, a continuing commitment to offer educational opportunities to adults who were no longer in school, was one that kept gaining ground in this country. The philosopher John Dewey had advocated for education as one of the bedrocks of a democratic ethical society, and had backed up his words by helping to found a major adult education school in New York City, the New School for Social Research, in 1919. And across the river, the Boston Center for Adult Education sprang into existence in 1933.

Meanwhile, the Social Union had fallen upon hard times. Its broad scope of activities no longer suited the needs of its day. Enrollment had been declining since the First World War. And the coming of the Depression hurt the Union financially when the Cambridge Dramatics Club could no longer afford to rent Brattle Hall.

An organization such as the Social Union or the Center survives only so long as the community supports it. Just ask Major General William Brattle, the original owner of Brattle House, who had to flee the country after adopting Tory beliefs in the early 1770s, losing the support of his community.

The Union’s board, seeing it failing, considered various alternatives, and then asked the Boston Center for Continuing Education to take over what remained of the Social Union. And so the Cambridge Center for Adult Education was born. In short, there would be no CCAE were it not for the engagement of a large community of people interested in knowledge and adult education.

The Boston Center was true to its word. One of its employees, Lydia Weare, came across the river to become the Cambridge Center’s secretary when it was organized in 1938. That first year, there were 19 courses and 273 members. By 1941, the Center had become an independent organization, with Lydia Weare as its first director.

Despite some early successes, the Cambridge Center almost didn’t survive its birth: there were so few students enrolled in 1942, thanks to World War II, that the Center considered closing. But the Center chose to stay engaged with the community, and the community soon engaged the Center again. I’m not sure whether it was such courses as “Indoor Ski School” or “Magic for Fun” that did it, but enrollment began climbing again. More likely, it was courses such as “Nutrition and National Defense” and “Maps, Graphs and their Uses” that brought people back in wartime. But that’s been the Center, mixing the serious with the simply entertaining from its beginning.

A few decades later, CCAE was still both educational and entertaining. A look through the catalogs around 1965-75 reveals some interesting courses. For example, “How to Read a Newspaper.” It sounds silly, but couldn’t we use this course today, updated for the Internet? Understanding issues of credibility and distortion? Trying to place today’s news in a longer-term context to make sense out of it? With phony memes and Russian trolls all over social media, a course such as this still seems quite timely.

And what about “Know the Computer”? All right, so we all didn’t have home computers in 1972, as the course description predicted. Especially if someone has “helped” you on the computer to end up someplace you don’t understand, or even if you’re trying to understand the capabilities of the computer you already have, wouldn’t it be great to have a course that could open your eyes to the possibilities, and show you how to get started?

On the other hand, “Why the Hippies?” is pretty much a course for its times. But that’s been the Center, trying to provide knowledge on the timely as well as the timeless.

CCAE owns another building, the Blacksmith House. It, too, has a history that’s intertwined with the Cambridge community. You’ve been reading the name Longfellow quite a bit in this history. Here it is again. And this time we are talking about the famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He’s well known for writing a poem about that legendary figure of the community, “The Village Blacksmith,” who worked under his spreading chestnut tree . . . here in Cambridge. You’ve guess it: it’s not called the Blacksmith House for nothing. The Dexter Pratt House (as it was once called) was indeed by the very forge Longfellow wrote about.

There’s an adventure connected with the building, too. In 1870, various members of the community helped Mary Walker to buy the house to live in. Walker was a former slave, who had escaped from slavery in North Carolina in 1848, and traveled all the way to New England to start a new life as a free woman! For years, she struggled to reunite her family, including her three children, but it would take a civil war before that could happen. Not entirely coincidentally, 1870, the year Mary Walker became a home owner, was the year the last of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution was passed, making the ex-slaves equal citizens with white citizens. Walker would die in 1872, and be buried in nearby Mount Auburn Cemetery. Her family would continue to live in the house until 1912.


Yet another adventurer was Elsa Brändström Ulrich, a Swedish woman born to a diplomat in St. Petersburg, who nursed POWs in Siberia during WWI. She became known as the Siberian Angel. Two decades later, with another war about to envelope Europe, she helped bring refugees to this country. And in 1939 they started the Window Shop bakery and café in the Blacksmith House, which would endure for some years beyond 1972, when the Center bought the building. While the Center does not offer nursing courses, it certainly offer all sorts of courses on cooking and other food-related topics.

The Window Shop

Engagement grows out of community. Not long after the Center bought the Blacksmith House, Gail Mazur, who had been part of a poetry circle around the recently deceased owner of the Grolier Book Store, asked if she could use the Center’s facilities for poetry readings. The Center gave them the dining room in the Blacksmith House, and for years the group met informally, passing the hat around at every meeting to defray its expenses. Readings led to publications. And to this day, CCAE plays host to poets in the Blacksmith House.

Look through those catalogues the Center sends you every term. Oh, there are hundreds of classes, many on subjects not even mentioned so far, such as photography and woodworking. But that’s not all that happens at the Center. There are topical lectures, discussion session on issues of the day, and art shows. The poetry readings, which go on to this day, have supported a publication program. And the Center is forever experimenting with new ideas, whether to take a cruise or spend a day with the Red Sox. That’s part of the CCAE adventure.

In the catalogue from spring, 1968, CCAE called its supporters friends. Friends are part of a community, one that supports teachers, students, visitors, supporters, and, let’s not forget them, administrators. We hope this short history provided you with ideas about the history and range of activities that have come together to form the Cambridge Center for Adult Education: community, engagement, knowledge, adventure. Thanks to all who support the Center by providing support in so many different ways.