The University of Toledo began in 1872 as a private arts and trades school offering subjects such as painting and architectural drawing. The idea behind the school was fostered by Jesup Wakeman Scott, a local newspaper editor, who published a pamphlet in 1868 entitled "Toledo: Future Great City of the World." Scott's publication expressed his belief that the center of world commerce was moving westward, and by 1900 would be located in Toledo. In preparation for the expected westward expansion of world commerce to Toledo Scott donated 160 acres of land as an endowment for a university and The Toledo University of Arts and Trades was incorporated on October 12, 1872. The university's original mission was to "furnish artists and artisans with the best facilities for a high culture in their professions...." Scott died in 1874, a year before the university opened in an old church building downtown Toledo.By the late 1870s the school was in financial trouble and after thirty years in operation, the school closed in 1878.On January 8, 1884, the assets of the school became property of the city of Toledo. The school reopened as the under direction of the city as the Toledo Manual Training School. It offered a three-year program for students at least 13 years old who received both academic and manual instruction.
Jerome Raymond, the university's first president, expanded its offerings in the early 1900s by affiliating with the Toledo Conservatory of Music, the YMCA College of Law, and the Toledo Medical College. Raymond also created the College of Arts and Sciences. Despite the expansion, the school struggled financially and endured various legal battles over control. A. Monroe Stowe became president in 1914, and helped organize and stabilize the university and on January 30, 1914 the college became known as Toledo University. Stowe founded the College of Commerce and Industry (later the College of Business Administration) in 1914, and the College of Education in 1916. During the period, enrollment grew from 200 students to around 1,500. Along with the expanded academic offerings, extracurricular activities increased with the university's first intercollegiate athletic programs forming in 1915, including football in 1917. Other organizations formed, such as the addition of a student council and the university's first student newspaper, The Universi-Teaser, in 1919. The athletic programs received their nickname, the Rockets, in 1923 from a newspaper writer, who thought the name reflected the teams playing style.