Shareholder Spotlight: Agnes Irwin (1841-1914)

Dana Dorman, Archivist, Library Company Papers Project

Receipt for a Library Company share dated 1733

Image: Receipt for a Library Company share, 1733.

We continue our monthly “Shareholder Spotlight” series by taking a closer look at share #869 and its fourth owner, Agnes Irwin (1841-1914).

Shareholders have always been the backbone of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Starting with the first group of fifty tradesmen who formed the library in 1731, shareholders have provided crucial financial support each year for our mission to “pour forth benefits for the common good.”

We keep careful track of who has owned each historic share, and our list of 9,800+ shareholders includes signers of the Declaration and Constitution, merchants, doctors, soldiers, scientists, artists, philanthropists, politicians, and much more.

Share #869

This share was first issued to Alexander Cook on March 23, 1813.

The Library Company’s records provide no further details about Cook, but he may be the person listed in several Philadelphia directories in the early nineteenth century as being in the candle manufacturing business on N. 4th Street.

Cook was still living when he sold share #869 to Robert Pearsall on March 9, 1837. Again, the Library Company’s records provide no further detail about Pearsall, but he probably had a family connection to the Library Company. The librarian at the time was John Jay Smith (1798-1881), whose wife was Rachel C. Pearsall Smith (1800-1873). About a decade before Robert Pearsall acquired this share, John Jay and Rachel Smith named one of their sons Robert Pearsall Smith (1827-1898).

Shareholder Robert Pearsall appears to have maintained the share until his estate transferred share #869 to William Pearsall on May 14, 1866. William eventually sold the share to Agnes Irwin (1841-1914) on November 4, 1875.

Photograph of profile portrait of a young Agnes Irwin wearing a hat

Image: Detail from Wister family scrapbook with portrait identified as Agnes Irwin (Philadelphia, circa 1870s), Wister and Butler Family Papers (collection # 1962). Courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Agnes Irwin was a great-great-granddaughter of Library Company co-founder Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and a niece of shareholder George Mifflin Dallas (1792-1864), who served as U.S. Vice President from 1845 to 1849 and U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom from 1856 to 1861.

By the time Irwin became a Library Company shareholder, she had been leading the West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies for approximately six years. In the years to come, she would move the school to a larger building and restructure the curriculum to allow her students to prepare for attending college.

Irwin was also an author. She and Sarah Butler Wister (1835-1908) apparently anonymously co-authored a novel, Brisée (Philadelphia, 1862), and both women were invited by the Women’s Centennial Committee to co-edit Worthy Women of our First Century (Philadelphia, 1877).[i]

Photograph of title page of Worthy Women book

Image: Title page from Sarah Butler Wister and Agnes Irwin, editors, Worthy Women of our First Century (Philadelphia, 1877).

Irwin continued to lead her school until 1894, when she was recruited to serve as the first dean of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA.

Her sister Sophy Dallas Irwin (1845-1915) stepped in to oversee what was by then Miss Irwin’s School. Eventually the school was renamed the Agnes Irwin School. It continues to operate today in Rosemont, PA.

Oil portrait of Agnes Irwin wearing Radcliffe robes

Image: Cecilia Beaux, Agnes Irwin (1841-1914) (1908). Oil on canvas. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Gift of friends of Agnes Irwin to Radcliffe College, 1909. Courtesy of President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Irwin served at Radcliffe for fifteen years, stepping down in 1909.

However, even in retirement, she made the news several times for her anti-suffrage lectures. One 1911 article describing an event in Washington, D.C., said that Irwin “declared that the men in this country had done very well in the matter of giving justice to all and she was in favor of letting them continue to run things” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 1911).

After Irwin’s death, Library Company share #869 passed to Arthur E. Hutchinson on June 3, 1915.

The share has been owned by seven people in its history.

Not yet a shareholder?

Share #869 is currently available. We work hard to match potential shareholders with historic shares that match their interests, and we would love to match you with Agnes Irwin’s share or another option. To learn more, reach out to our Development Office at or 215-546-3181 ext. 133.


[i] “Timeline: 150 Years of Empowering Girls,” Agnes Irwin Magazine (winter 2021): 14.