An Early Business College

Today both male and female students have many career options—astronaut, scientist, doctor, writer, lawyer, farmer, professor, actor—the list goes on and on. However this was not always the case, especially for women. In the 1800s and well into the 20th century, single women were often encouraged to hire out to work in other people’s homes or to become school teachers. Married women almost never worked outside of their homes. 

While the number of women graduating from colleges and universities was on the rise in the late 1800s, it was still very unusual at this time for a woman to receive the education and specialized training required to enter a profession such as medicine or law.

A Woman Defies Society

Elizabeth Irish defied women's traditional roles. In 1895 she founded the School of Shorthand and Typing in Iowa City. Women of all ages came to Elizabeth Irish's school to take classes in shorthand, bookkeeping, spelling, business arithmetic and typewriting. At first, the school operated in one room with ten students. As it grew and began to enroll many more students it was renamed Irish's University Business College.

A Sister Helps Out

While her business school was in operation, Irish periodically traveled in the western states leaving her cousin Jane to run the Business College. Jane wrote Elizabeth many very interesting and descriptive letters with news of the school.

On June 22, 1902 Jane wrote, "The dictation class [is] doing nicely. But it is like pulling teeth to make Amy Hands move her pen more than 2 words a minute."

The following month Jane reported, "I think from all inquiries we will have a big school in September for there are a great many talking of coming both for shorthand and bookkeeping.''

In another letter Jane wrote, "Yesterday I sent Annie Kutcher to work for the lumber company to work on the typewriter. She did very well."

Elizabeth Had Experience

How was she able to found the school? First, Irish was determined and had a vision of what she wanted to accomplish. "In the business world I found many people who failed through lack of thorough training in their line of work which should have given them... self-reliance and that high moral standard which should be [obtained] in business," said Irish.  

Second, she had a very good education. She attended a seminary for women and graduated from a college and school of shorthand. 

Third, she had good work experience and had held a number of jobs before opening her school in Iowa City. She had been a bookkeeper and cashier at two California newspapers. She worked for a time as a chief clerk at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. Later she lived in Reno, Nevada and worked as a stenographer and writer before starting a business school there.

Elizabeth Left a Legacy

Irish ran her Business School in Iowa City for 45 years until her retirement in 1940 at the age of 84. One writer said that Elizabeth Irish was, "…ahead of her time in demonstrating what a purposeful, well-trained female could accomplish in a so-called man's world."

Using their training at Irish's University Business College, many Iowa women entered the working world of the office. When she died in 1952, about 12,000 students had been trained at her school.


  • Deborah Gore, Ed., “The People of Iowa: Elizabeth Irish,” The Goldfinch 8, no. 2 (November 1986): 18-19.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.


Nineteenth-century women had few choices for jobs and education.

Investigation Tip:
Think about the events described in this article. What situations and events caused this to happen? How did one person make a difference?

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