Celebrating Drexel’s 1891 Founding in Style

Drexel's Main Building is already decorated for the holidays and the 125th anniversary celebration.

This article is part of the DrexelNow “Faces of Drexel” series honoring Drexel’s history as part of the University-wide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel’s founding in 1891. 

When the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry was formally dedicated on Dec. 17, 1891, it was nothing short of extraordinary. The opening of an institute focused on practical education and opened to students of all genders, races, religions and socioeconomic status marked a change in the standard education available to Americans — and people were well aware of the momentous occasion.

“Today will go down in history as marking an epoch in the educational history of Philadelphia and the country,” announced The New York Times in its glowing coverage of the event. “If the design which animates the founder of the Drexel Institute, which was dedicated in the presence of the most distinguished assemblage that has met here since the Centennial [International Exhibition of 1876], is carried out successfully, it will prove a practical revolution in educational methods in this vicinity.”

Almost exactly 125 years ago — give or take a week or so — the world was officially introduced to Drexel. Over 5,000 people attempted to attend the dedication ceremony, with just 2,000 managing to score a seat (or a place to stand) in Main Building. Notable attendees included founder Anthony J. Drexel’s business partner J. P. Morgan of Drexel, Morgan & Co.; Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison (Drexel, Morgan & Co. clients), United States Vice President Levi Morton and U.S. Senator Chauncey M. Depew of New York, who spoke about the importance of practical education and opportunities for women as the principal speaker at the event. Various government officials and presidents of contemporary colleges and universities also attended, as did a select number of faculty members from Drexel’s original 11 departments.

“The visitors began to gather in the library, the galleries, and the great court of the Institute as early as two o’clock in the afternoon, and they overflowed the spacious auditorium when the hour for the dedicatory ceremonies arrived,” noted a volume commemorative of the ceremonies printed in 1893. “The gathering was memorable, not only because of the thousands of persons which it embraced but because of their broadly representative character and their distinction in every branch of learning, science, and public life.”

Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan won’t be able to attend the 125th anniversary event on Dec. 7 to honor the original founding — but you can. All Drexel students, faculty, staff and alumni are invited to attend the celebration, which will be held in the Great Court of Main Building from 1 to 3 p.m.

Much like the original 1891 event, food and drink will be served and Drexel’s president will give a speech on the future of the institution (inaugural president James A. MacAlister did the honors in 1891 when he accepted the deeds of trust of the land, building and endowment). However, this year’s celebration will offer a few more modern amenities and activities than what was available at the original founding. 

The Dec. 7 event will serve as the premiere of a special short video that showcases the best of Drexel’s history using archival images and modern footage. The video was narrated by Scott Knowles, PhD, department head and professor in the Department of History, who co-edited "Building Drexel: The University and its City, 1891-2016.” The video is part of a collaboration between the Office of University Communications and the communication and marketing team within the Division of Enrollment Management and Student Success (EMSS).

The results of a months-long voting contest on items to include in a special time capsule will finally be announced at the event. The time capsule contains various items that will represent Drexel’s culture and key parts of the 125th festivities, such as an empty bottle of the special Dragon’s Gold beer an alumnus created for the anniversary and a copy of “Building Drexel: The University and its City, 1891-2016.” The time capsule will be buried during the upcoming construction of Korman Quad.

To find out what items — possibly ones you’ve even suggested or voted for — will be buried in the time capsule and to witness the world premiere of the video created for the 125th anniversary, be sure to find your way into Main Building on the afternoon of Dec. 7 to be a part of a ceremony that, like the original one 125 years ago, will surely be remembered for decades to come on campus.

And, if you’re an alumnus turned faculty or professional staff member, the Alumni Association is throwing a special happy hour event for you immediately following the Dec. 7 event. Stop by Wahoo's from 4 to 6 p.m. for complimentary appetizers, specially priced beverages — including Dragon's Gold from alumnus Gene Muller '84 of Flying Fish Brewing Co. — and, most importantly, a good time with your fellow alumni on campus.