Our Iowa Heritage: Hannah Elizabeth Irish – Iowa City’s Business Entrepreneur.

For forty-five years (1895 – 1940), Hannah Elizabeth Irish was a brave trailblazer on behalf of women in Johnson County. Born on February 22, 1856, this granddaughter of the pioneer settler Captain Frederick M. Irish became Iowa City’s first female business manager, working at The Iowa State Press with her uncle, John P. Irish (pictured below).

The Iowa State Press came into existence in 1860 as The State Democratic Press. John P. Irish took over as editor in 1864, making it into a major competitor to The Iowa Citizen, one of the two Republican newspapers in town. In 1920, The Citizen merged with The State Press, becoming The Iowa City Press-Citizen. Read more about early Iowa newspapers here.

When John Irish headed west to California in 1877, Elizabeth went with him, finding a variety of work assignments over the next 18 years. One historian writes…

Elizabeth returned to Iowa in 1895 and her timing was perfect. Turn-of-the-century Iowa City was bustling with activity. Not only was the State University of Iowa (SUI) expanding its campus, but downtown Iowa City was alive with growth as well.

With her vast experience in business combined with an innovative spirit, Elizabeth opened a small business school in the Mendenhall Block (see pic above), teaching office-management skills to her first class of ten students.

The typewriter was new at the time, and Irish found herself on the cutting edge of a whole new market, training young people in the highly-marketable skills of short-hand and typing.

Over the years, Elizabeth added additional coursework to her basic curriculum, added faculty, and moved her training school to larger locations, first to 119 Clinton Street, and then to 205 1/2 Washington Street – adjacent to First National Bank.

Though not officially associated with SUI, Irish’s business college successfully trained 12,000 students throughout its 45-year run in Iowa City (1895-1940).

All the while, Elizabeth Irish was the lone female business person associated with the Iowa City Commercial Club – a forerunner to the present-day Iowa City Chamber of Commerce.

In 1906, the Commercial Club published a little booklet entitled Our Live Ones – Iowa City – hiring a cartoonist by the name of Hruska to draw 40 sketches of our city’s most prominent leaders. The list offered an entertaining look at those business leaders “who made and are making Iowa City.” And you might have guessed it. Of the 40 leaders chosen, 39, of course, were men. But the one woman representative?

Who else – but Hannah Elizabeth Irish

Known for her strong work ethic – Elizabeth Irish became known around Iowa City as the women who meant business! Click here to read more about this 1906 booklet that featured 40 community business leaders.

Postcards were the rage at the turn of the century. Here are a couple of promotional penny postcards from 1912 (left) and 1911 (right).

This article appeared in The Iowa City Daily Press on September 20, 1904.

This article appeared in The Iowa City Citizen on April 1, 1916

Elizabeth retired in 1940 at age 84, closing her business school in Iowa City after 45 years. Over the years, she never married, giving herself fully to her business interests (see quote below).

Hannah Elizabeth Irish died in 1952 at the age of 96 and is buried alongside her parents Charles Wood (C.W.) & Susannah Abigail Irish in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

This story appeared in the May 4, 1989 Iowa City Press Citizen – Iowa City’s 150 Year Celebration Edition – Read more here.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Hannah Elizabeth Irish – truly one amazing business woman with a vision for training and equipping others and a dedication to keep doing just that for forty-five years!


Read about another successful turn-of-the-century Iowa City business-woman – Carrie L. Wieneke.

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

Irish Business School Advertisement, The Iowa Alumnus, February 1919, p 138

Artist Hruska – 40 illustrations, Iowa City Public Library

Elizabeth Irish, Iowa City Public Library

Irish’s University Business College, Iowa City Public Library

Photos from: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, pp 242-243, 314-315

Hannah Elizabeth Irish, Find-A-Grave

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