An ethnologist and geologist, Erminnie Adele (Platt) Smith founded the Aesthetic Society of Jersey City in 1876. Jersey City historian J. Owen Grundy calls Smith a "very remarkable woman, one of the most talented and illustrious that Jersey City ever claimed" (Jersey Journal 3 December 1969)
Smith was born in Marcellus, NY, in 1836 and graduated from Troy Seminary, NY, in 1853. She married Simeon H. Smith, who in 1866 took a position as superintendent-cashier of the Central Stock Yards in Jersey City where they lived; they had four sons. He later served on the Jersey City Board of Aldermen and in the New Jersey Assembly and was active in the Lincoln Association of Jersey City.
Smith and her family lived in Germany for four years during the 1870s. In Germany, she continued her studies in mineralogy and crystallography. She became an expert on the Six Nations, or Native American tribes called the Iroquois Nation of New York and Canada, specializing in their languages, and in 1880 she was retained by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Smith was the first woman inducted into the American Academy of Science and was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Historical Society.
In 1876, Erminnie Smith again settled in Jersey City, where her home on Pacific Avenue was noted for its "picturesque Gothic charm." She became active in several cultural organizations and joined Sorosis, a women's club that met in New York City. In Jersey City, Smith founded the Aesthetic Society and became its first president. The purpose of the Society was the promotion of the "cultivation and education of a taste for the beautiful in literature, science, and art." Grundy writes that the Aesthetic Society was "perhaps the first woman's club in these parts to be devoted to educational rather than purely social or charitable pursuits." He also claims that it was an intellectual salon on a par with that of Mabel Dodge in New York City.
The Society met on Saturday afternoons at her home; when it could no longer handle the overflow crowd of attendees, the meetings were moved to the Lafayette (Dutch) Reformed Church at the northwest corner of Communipaw Avenue and Pine Street.
Among the Society's active supporters were Smith's wealthy neighbors who resided in the ornate dwellings and row houses of the Lafayette section of the city. Among its roster of approximately 500 members were women whose husbands were leaders in Jersey City in the 1870s and 1880s, such as Mrs. E.F.C. Young, the wife of the president of the First National Bank of Jersey City and the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company. Other notable members of the Society included the Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, pastor of the First Universalist Church in Jersey City; attorney William H. Speer, later general counsel of Public Service Corporation; the Rev. Cornelius Brett, pastor of the Old Bergen (Dutch) Reformed Church; and the Rev. William Rankin Duryea, pastor of Lafayette Reformed Church.
The Society's cultural activities in arts and letters included music, poetry, theatrical productions, and recitations. Appearances by some notable personages of the time also drew substantial audiences. The Irish poet Oscar Wilde spoke at one of the Society's meetings in June 1882. Z.K. Pangborn, the editor of The Evening Journal (later the Jersey Journal), was reported to have been somewhat amazed at Smith's invitation to the "notorious" poet. The British author Matthew Arnold spoke before the Society on December 29, 1883, about the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1877, Thomas A. Edison showed the audience his early version of the "talking machine."
After six years, the Society published Echoes of the Aesthetic Society of Jersey City (1882), a compilation of songs, papers, essays and poems presented at its meetings. In 1885 Smith represented the state of New Jersey at the New Orleans Exposition as commissioner of the Department of Woman's Work.
Erminnie Smith was only fifty years old when she died at her home on June 9, 1886. She was buried at New York Bay Cemetery after a funeral service at the Lafayette Reformed Church. The Aesthetic Society established the Erminnie A. Smith Memorial Prize at Vassar College after her death. Vassar also received the mineral and fossil specimens that Smith collected and kept in her home in Jersey City.
Aesthetic Society of Jersey City. Echoes of the Aesthetic Society of Jersey City. New York: Thompson & Moreau Printers, 1882.
Blacker, Patricia F. and Pamela P. Grossman."Erminnie Adele Platt Smith, 1836-1886," Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women by Women's Project of New Jersey. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
"Funeral of Mrs. Erminnie A. Smith." New York Times 12 June 1886.
Grundy, J. Owen. "When Oscar Wilde and Matthew Arnold Came to Talk in Hudson County." Jersey Journal 3 December 1969.
Richardson, W.H. "An Old Scrap-book and Its Memories; The Aesthetic Society and the Camping Out Association." ts. Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.