Iowa City’s Commercial Colleges – Taking Care Of Business.

When people think of higher education in Iowa City – the immediate response is The University of Iowa. But did you know that for most of Iowa City’s first century, there were many other private schools in Iowa City competing for students?

As a matter of fact, in 1843 – four years before SUI even existed on paper – there were several private schools of higher learning in Iowa City. According to Iowa City historian Clarence Ray Aurner…

Dr. William Reynolds had thirty-five students in his private school, Mrs. Hart had forty students, and the largest, by far – Mechanics Academy (see below) had one-hundred and twenty male and female students. Read more about Mechanics Academy here.

By 1845 – still two years before SUI was formed, these private schools were showing healthy signs of progress, and local educators were encouraging the addition of even more private schools of higher learning. Iowa City University was an idea that never fully materialized, and Iowa City College (see below) – a private Christian school sponsored by the Methodist-Episcopal Church – actually opened in 1843, but was struggling in finding the right man to oversee it. In 1846, this short-lived school – it closed by 1848 – invited a new graduate of Indiana Asbury University to come to Iowa City and see what he could do. His name was James Harlan, and you can read more about Harlan’s earliest days in Iowa City here.

As we’ve discussed in other posts, the State University of Iowa (SUI) was formed – on paper – by the Iowa State Legislature on February 25, 1847, but it took eight long years – until 1855 – before any classes were actually held in Iowa City.

And even with that progress, SUI – between 1855-1860 – was having only limited success in attracting students outside of Johnson County via its Normal School – the equivalent to today’s junior college. In truth, it was the SUI Normal Department, as it focused on training teachers, that kept SUI alive during these first few years. Read more here.

The SUI campus as it appeared in the 1860’s.

Finally, during the 1860’s, when additional facilities and staff were added, the SUI Collegiate Department (see cover below) found its footing in Iowa City. More details here.

(JP-023) Here’s a postal cover from the SUI Collegiate Department with the Latin phrase – “coronam non sine pulvere” – which translates “no laurel (or crown) without effort.”

As the Civil War came to an end, and SUI began to flourish, one entrepreneur – William McClain – a Quaker educator from Pennsylvania – played an important role in making Iowa City into a community that valued the importance of higher education. McClain – who moved to Iowa with his young family in 1855 – had served as principal and proprietor of Salem Institute in Ohio before trying his hand at farming in Cedar County – near Tipton. Ten years later – in 1865 – the McClain’s moved to Iowa City, and its here, William took control of the fledgling Iowa City Commercial College (1867), and several years later (1870), The Iowa City Academy, making McClain a very well-respected educator in both Iowa City and around the state of Iowa. One generation later, William’s son, Emlin McClain, who was one of the first students at the Academy, went on to become the head of the SUI College of Law before serving as a Justice in the Iowa Supreme Court. Read more here.

As Iowa City grew in its reputation as a city of education – its nickname became “The Athens of Iowa” – other entrepreneurs migrated here with the dream of building more schools throughout our city.

Sadly, no records have been found that indicate when Professor Eldon Moran came to Iowa City, but according to The Iowa City Daily Republican (below left), even the newspapers back east were buzzing about Moran – who was the official stenographer for the Indiana Supreme Court before coming here to oversee Iowa City’s newest business college – The SUI School of Short-Hand and Reporters’ Bureau.

By September 1883, the Iowa City Commercial College (above right) was on the move again – expanding its facility on Dubuque Street and now teaming up with Moran’s successful school.

(JP-024) Here’s a rare postal cover (above) and letter (below) from Oliver E. Hughes – a student of SUI’s School of Short-Hand, written in December 1885. In writing his grandmother, Oliver says, “I am well and getting along fine with my short-hand study.” And when addressing his future, Hughes says, “I can make more money by reporting law suites (lawsuits) in courts and such,” versus his being a teacher.

While in Iowa City during the 1880’s, Professor Moran made a large impact in our city and beyond, writing numerous textbooks and other resources on the subject of short-hand – all published and distributed by his own company located in St. Louis. Here’s a list of some of his publications…

By the late 1880’s, the good professor decided to relocate to St. Louis, where Moran created American Home University – opening his business school to a much larger audience. By 1909 (see below) his classic book on the Pitman System of Short-Hand was in its thirty-ninth printing!

Yet, apparently Moran’s time in St. Louis was not always easy. An article (below-right) from the March 2, 1900 edition of The Iowa State Press indicates some tough times for his business college. But, a September 1900 ad in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (below-top) indicates that Moran must have gathered up all the pieces and kept on keeping on at 1401 Washington Avenue!

Back in Iowa City, over the next few decades, numerous business colleges flourished here in Iowa City – training up hundreds of young men and women in the highly-marketable skills of short-hand, typing, and business administration.

There was The Iowa City Academy – which moved into a larger two-story brick building at the northeast corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets, just across from University Square. Over the years, the Academy educated some of Iowa City’s finest (see list below) and in 1916/1917, evolved into University High School of Iowa City.

The Willis-Williams Commercial College – an expanded version of the original Iowa City Commercial College – consolidated with the Iowa City Academy in 1893, yet still used its original name and location on Washington Street well past the turn-of-the-century. Below is an Iowa State Press newspaper ad from February 1900.

The highly-successful Elizabeth Irish’s Business College opened in 1895 – first on Clinton Street – then moving over to Washington Street adjacent to First National Bank. Irish ran her college in Iowa City right up until the time of her retirement, at age 84, in 1940. Read more here.

And, speaking of successful women in education, there was also St. Agatha’s Seminary – which opened in 1862 in the abandoned Park Hotel on the corner of Jefferson & Dubuque Streets. Female seminaries in the 19th century weren’t seminaries in the way we understand them today, as schools of theology. Instead, female seminaries functioned much like modern boarding schools training women in numerous business administrative skills. St. Agatha’s was highly successful in Iowa City for nearly 50 years (1911), and due to that success, a fourth floor was added in 1875 to what eventually became SUI’s Svendi Hall. Read more here.

All in all, it’s these many business colleges of Iowa City, along with the growing State University of Iowa, that gave our city the proud name – The Athens of Iowa. Kudos to one and all.


October 19, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Postcard 258: The Iowa City Academy Experiment, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb, August 21, 2004

Iowa City College, Iowa Capitol Reporter, September 16, 1843, p 3

Iowa City College, Mechanics Academy, Iowa Capitol Reporter, December 30, 1843, p 4

Iowa Schools in 1846, Jacob A. Swisher, The Palimpsest, Volume 27, Number 3, March 1946, pp 65-74

Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Clarence Ray Aurner, 1912, pp 271-294

Short Hand In Iowa State University, The Iowa City Daily Republican, August 23, 1882, p 3

The Commercial College Expansion, The Iowa City Daily Republican, September 5, 1883, p 4

Eldon Moran, Circulars of Information for 1884, Julius Ensign Rockwell, The Teaching, Practice, and Literature of Shorthand, 1884, p 172

Iowa City Academy – Academy & Student/Faculty News, Johnson County IAGenWeb

Now Is The Time Ad, Iowa State Press, February 19, 1900, p 4

St. Louis Republic article, Iowa State Press, March 2, 1900, p 3

Eldon Moran ad, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 16, 1900, p 25

The Reporting Style of Short Hand, Eldon Moran, Moran Short-Hand Company, 1909

Commercial College, A Fact A Day About Iowa City, Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 29, 1946, p 4

Commercial College, A Fact A Day About Iowa City, Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 23, 1948, p 6

University High, Iowa High School Sports


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