Boarding Schools

Private Tutors

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Boarding Schools

The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils: Consisting of Information, Instruction, and Advice, Calculated to Improve the Manners, and Form the Character of Young Ladies.  To Which is Added A Collection of Letters, Written by the Pupils to their Instrucor, their Friends, and Each Other.  By a Lady of Massachusetts; Author of The Coquette.
Read Hannah Foster, The Boarding School

Beginning in colonial times, parents could send their daughters to the home of a widow or unmarried woman who would instruct the young ladies in arts, manners, and literature. These home-based schools had some similarities to the apprentice system and also to the practice of young ladies residing with female relatives to enlarge their experience and skills. Boarding school teachers instructed students in plain and fancy needlework, fine manners, and fine literature. Matrons often hired tutors to teach special subjects like French and dance for additional fees. In colonial days, boarding schools appeared in wealthy towns like Boston and Newport, but after Independence, these schools also appeared in the quickly growing manufacturing towns of New England. 1

Boarding school teachers, like private tutors, were entrepreneurs; as such, they understood that a good reputation was essential to attract students. Women relied on word of mouth and rarely advertised in newspapers. Because of this, it is difficult to know how many women taught, how long they kept schools, or the number of students they accepted.

Personal qualities like fine manners were also important qualities in a teacher of older girls. Some women taught exquisite drawing, painting, music, and fancy needlework. These artistic accomplishments were naturally displayed by their students, spreading the reputation of the teacher. This may, in part, have been responsible for the persistence of art, music and needlework in the female curriculum.

The author of this book, Hannah Foster, was a successful novelist when she wrote the Boarding School. She chose the novel genre as a vehicle to promote her ideas about women's education. By 1798, many men had written essays and sermons about female education in the new American republic, but women had almost no cultural authority to do the same. In order to propagate her ideas, Foster wrote this novel to which she appended a series of letters that expands upon her ideals of female education. Thus, she did Foster did not cross the boundaries of polite femininity, and honed her ability and that of her students to convey their ideas with charm rather than strength and logic. The boarding school she describes taught students to use these charms even as Foster extended women's knowledge and intellect. Thus, like much cultural change, Foster's new ideas were enunciated in the language and gendered framework of old ideas. Throughout the next century, as women trained their minds in logic and science, they were less willing to confine their ideas within the boundaries of polite femininity.2

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Related Books from the Collection

Martha Milcah Hill Moore, Miscellanies, Moral and Instructive in Prose and Verse; Collected from Various Authors; for the Use of Schools, and Improvement of Young Persons of Both Sexes

Titlepage and Preface

Martha Milcah Hill Moore,
Miscellanies, Moral and Instructive in Prose and Verse; Collected from Various Authors; for the Use of Schools, and Improvement of Young Persons of Both Sexes

Priscilla Wakefield,
Mental Improvement: or the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art in a Series of Instructive Conversations by the Author of Leisure Hours

Priscilla Wakefield,Mental Improvement: or the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art in a Series of Instructive Conversations

Read Titlepage

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Private Tutoring

Plan of Instruction by Private Classes, principally intended for those who wish to give the Finishing Polish to their Education:  including some remarks on the Cultivation of the Female Mind, by William Milns . . .

Read Milns on Female Education

William Milns described himself as a fellow of Oxford University. Tutors advertised their expertise in paid ads, but publishing treatises and schoolbooks could add to their income as well as their reputations. In this short book, Milns described a course of studies for boys to which he appends a short section on female education. Advertisements from the 1790s show that many tutors instructed both girls and boys, although at different times of the day. Private tutors were entrepreneurs who benefited by increased enrollments. As young women became seen as "consumers" of education, their opportunities to be taught increased. Milns' chapters illustrated how tutors reinforced gender differences even while teaching the same subjects.3

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Milns on Women's Subjects

Miln page 15

Milns on Writing and Accounts

Milns on Writing and Accounts
"neatness and elegance should likewise characterize whatever is the offspring of female industry"

Milns on Geography, History, and Globes
"the absurd and tyrannical ideas that it is not the part of a woman to join in conversation or understand the purport of it."

Milns on Geography and Globes

Milns on Geography, History, and Globes

Miln page 14

Milns on Reading and Grammar

Miln on Reading and Grammar
"the usual methods of learning its rules by heart. . .is of very little use."

"the subscriber intends to avail himself of the assistance of a foreigner. . .to acquire the true accent and pronunciation"


Milns on French

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Reading Between the Lines

A private tutor and boarding school teachers taught many similar subjects; what were the essential differences?
How might the teacher's own education affect what they taught?
How might the teacher's need to attract students affect what they taught?
Which approach provided more potential for women to learn more, new, or typically masculine subjects?

To be viable, the boarding system had to meet the needs of teachers and the families of students.

How would it benefit women to take in students?
Who taught the teachers of boarding schools? Could we assume that most students' families lived too far from the boarding school for the students to walk?
What kinds of economic resources would the students need to attend boarding school? A private tutor?
Were the subjects and arts Foster advised available to all young girls?

In this era there were many other kinds of "boarding" situations:

  • formal apprenticeships with artisans
  • living with a relative in town
  • living with a neighbor as "help."
In this way, young girls prepared themselves for their adult roles. Should we include these informal educational settings as part of the evolution of "women's education."?

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Related Primary Source Materials at the Clements Library
Bennet, John, Rev. Letters to a young lady. . . 1791 & 1796
Bennet, John, Rev. Strictures on female education 1792
Burton, John Lectures on female education and manners 1794 & 1799
Darwin, Erasmus Plan for the conduct of female education 1798
Doggett, Simeon Discourse on education 1797
Magaw, Samuel Address, delivered in the Young Ladies' Academy in Philadelphia 1787
-------- New, pleasing instructor. . . 1799
Rowson, Susanna Haswell Mentoria 1794
Bingham, Caleb Young ladies' accidence 1792
Le Prince de Beaumont, Marie Young misses' magazine 1807
More, Hannah Strictures on the modern system of female education 1800
Pierce, Charles Portsmouth miscellany. . . 1804
Sigourney, Lydia The writings of Nancy Maria Hyde, of Norwich, Conn. : connected with a sketch of her life. Norwich [Conn.] : Printed by R. Hubbard, 1816.
Vanderpoel, Emily Chronicles of a pioneer school 1903
Vanderpoel, Emily More Chronicles of a pioneer school 1927
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Secondary Sources for Colonial Heritage

1Ring, Betty. Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830. Boston: Thomas Todd Co., 1983. This book on needlepoint offers excellent historical insight into boarding schools in Newport, Rhode Island. See pages 42-43;51-53; 92 for information on boarding school teachers.
Lutz, Alma. Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929. Lutz had access to Willard's papers that have since been destroyed. See her discussion of Willard's early schooling, first in the local academy, and then at the boarding school of the Misses Patten in Hartford, Connecticut.

2See Steve Adams, "Hannah Webster Foster" for a bibliography of books and articles about Hannah Foster. Available at (Viewed July 26, 2005)

3Information for this section is taken from Woody, Thomas. A History of Women's Education in the United States. Vol. 1. New York: Science Press, 1929. William Milns (1761-1801), is best-known as the author of The Penman's Repository, which along with The Well-Bred Scholar, a grammar and rhetoric, were originally published by the author in London in 1794. An Oxford graduate, Milns was a master at the City Commercial School in London and traveled to New York sometime after 1795, and continued to publish there. The American Accountant; or, A Complete System of Practical Arithmetic appeared in 1797, and A Selection of Fables From the Best English Writers in 1798. This information was found in Charles Monaghan's, "Lyman Cobb and the British elocutionary tradition." available online at (Viewed July 27, 2005.)
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