Strayer's roots run deep in Baltimore

This month, 900 Strayer University students walked across the stage at 1st Mariner Arena during a regional commencement ceremony in which they were awarded bachelor's degrees from an institution whose Baltimore roots date to the late 19th century.

Strayer's Business College began in Baltimore in 1892 as the brainchild of Seibert Irving Strayer, a Bucknell University graduate who was a writer and shorthand innovator.

In 1902, he was joined by Thomas W. Donoho, a former manager of a typewriter company and a lawyer who later headed the Baltimore school.

Since those early days, the school's mission has changed. In 1959, it became a junior college and was licensed to award two-year degrees. A decade later, it was licensed to award bachelor's degrees and changed its name to Strayer College.

Since 1998, it has been a university, now with 99 campuses across the nation. Michael Plater, who joined Strayer University in 2010, was named president this year.

In 1905, the college moved from its temporary home at 125 W. Saratoga St. to a rather grand building on the southwest corner of Charles and Fayette streets.

It occupied the "third and fourth floors of the new building, which have been specially outfitted for a business college," noted a 1905 article in The Baltimore Sun. "They are light, well ventilated, roomy and supplied with electric lights and fans."

Strayer's, as generations of Baltimoreans called it, had "grown to be one of the best known business schools in the United States."

Its mission was laid out in a catalog from 1912: "This school then, stands for high ideals; it courts investigation, welcomes comparisons, and stands by its promises. The students of this school receive thorough training, and are therefore equipped to do their work well. This has created a desire on the part of many business men to secure our students."

Classes were held during the day and at night, and with the exception of holidays were held year round.

"It would be difficult to overestimate the value of the educational opportunity afforded by our Night School. It gives the young man or woman who desires to continue his or her education an opportunity to do so at a small cost, and without interference with his or her daily occupation," the school catalog said.

Tuition for day sessions was $12 a month, "payable in advance," the catalog noted, while those studying at night paid $5.

Classes included typewriting, spelling, business letter-writing, filing, penmanship, rapid calculations and use of office appliances, such as mimeograph machines, tabulating machines and telephones.

Shorthand students were expected to take dictation at 100 words a minute and then "transcribe same neatly and accurately on the typewriter at the rate of twenty-five words a minute," the catalog said.

In teaching students how to type, Strayer's was an advocate of the touch system.

"By this method persons learn to typewrite just like they play the piano — without watching the keyboard and with a great deal more ease and grace than by the old method," the catalog said. "By the touch system persons become able to write twice as fast as by the old method and with much less fatigue. No one should now learn typewriting in any school where the touch method is not taught."

The school's founder waded into the handwriting arena in 1902 when debate arose over which was more acceptable, sloping or vertical handwriting. At the time, vertical handwriting was being taught in Baltimore public schools, and it found little favor among the city's business community.

"Very little speed can be attained in writing in the vertical system, and speed and legibility is what the business men require from their clerks," Strayer told The Sun. "I find that the men who obtain their clerks from my college much prefer those students who use the slant hand, and a large number of them won't have a clerk who writes the vertical system."

Strayer established branches in Lock Haven, Pa., and Philadelphia in 1901 and expanded to Washington in 1904.

Strayer, who had been active in the temperance movement, died in 1941 in Philadelphia at age 68.

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