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An Abridgment of Universal Geography together with Sketches of History Intended for the Use of Schools and Academies in the United States, by Susanna Rowson

Susannah Rowson,
Abridgement of Universal Geography

Primary studies for women included Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Geography and basic sewing stitches, usually in primary schools in the neighborhood. Primary schools were both private and tax supported "district schools."

Susanna Rowson was the author of the popular novel, Charlotte Temple. She also operated a popular boarding school and compiled school books for young students.1

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, By Hugh Blair

Hugh Blair, On Rhetoric

For further education, parents sent their children to advanced schools called variously "academies," "seminaries," "institutes," and "colleges." The central subjects of the female curriculum were composition, rhetoric, the emerging "new" sciences sometimes called "natural philosophy," algebra, history, moral philosophy, and French. Latin was popularized for women around mid-century. Some advanced female schools specialized in fine needlework, art, and music.2

Selected Letters About Primary & Advanced Studies

Letters to Miss Lottie Folder
Letters to Miss Lottie, Feb. 2, 1853
Plainfield New Jersey Collection

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"I study Mitchell's Geography. . .We have not written any Compositions or spoke any pieces or had any spelling schools yet. . ."



"My studies are Paley's Moral Philosophy, Kames' Elements of Criticism and Botany"
>

From Troy Female Seminary, Apr. 7, 1832
Letters from Troy Female Seminary, April 7, 1832
Cole Family Papers
Letter Mary to Sarah
Letters from Schools, no date
Kendall Brown Family Papers


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"You may do as you choose about History and Grammar, but you know how anxious I am that you should spend a great deal of time on the Arithmetic."



"The week after I came back there was a course of lectures on astronomy. . .with the magic lantern."
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Letter from East Bloomfield School
Letters from East Bloomfield School, Jan. 26, 1850
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
Letters from Waddawanuck Seminary
Letters from Wadawannack Seminary, no date
Kendall-Brown Family Papers


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"I have algebra, French and music. . ."



"Next week I shall have Latin..Rhetoric..Classical Mythology. . . if I can only get through in Physics"
>

Letters from Ohio Wesleyan University
Letters from Ohio Wesleyan University, Nov. 1, 1885
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
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Compositions

Pen and Ink Cartoons: Literary Woman

A Literary Woman
Political Cartoon Collection

As these letters show, students had to create compositions every other week. Often student clubs, called literary societies, copied these into handwritten books or even printed literary journals. Because they were publicly viewed, the impetus to excel was intense.


Women writers were numerous in the early nineteenth century. This cartoonist could satirize the "Literary Woman" because women were acknowledged to be prolific writers.3

Talcott Collection, undated school compositon Our Happy School Days

Read school composition

Selected Letters About Student Compositions

Talcott Family, Our Happy School Days
Undated Compositions
Talcott Family Papers


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"Who will not admit. . .that his schooldays were his happiest days"



"I have my examination composition all done but copying and there is not one word of it truth"
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Letter from Wadawannuck Female Seminary, June 28, 1854
Letter from Wadawannuck Female Seminary, June 28, 1854
Kendall-Brown Family Papers
Letter from Canandaigua Seminary, Nov. 21, 1852
Letter from Canandaigua Seminary, Nov. 21, 1852
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers


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"Reading compositions is worst of all! Just imagine what a funny thing it must be to stand up before eight or ten teachers besides nearly a 100 boarders from all parts of the state and read your own composition."


"Today was composition day we have been listening to some very interesting compositions. . .one by the ladies and the other by the gentlemen"
>

Letter from East Bloomfield Academy, Jan. 26, 1850
Letter from East Bloomfield Academy, Jan. 26, 1850
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
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Music & Art

The Boarding School, by Hannah Foster, page 39
Hannah Foster on Music and Dance

Student letters show some students selected an advanced school because of its gifted art teachers while other students concentrated on their written studies. Teachers who specialized in these arts often opened advanced schools which had many features of the earlier boarding school.4




Student Potholder

Margaret Bailey Student Sewing Project
Norton Strange Townsend Papers

Selected Letters About Art and Music

Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute
Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute, May 1854
Kendall-Brown Family Papers


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"I do not paint double time for as I take drawing. . ."


"I have taken no piece in music, but. . .am studying the music primmer "
>

Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute, Oct. 18, 1854
Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute, Oct. 18, 1854
Kendall Brown Family Papers
Bethlehem Tuition for Elizabeth Barras
Bill from Bethlehem Female Seminary, Dec. 31, 1838
Elizabeth Barras Papers


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Bill for Music, Drawing, French, and Ribbon Work totals $12 while total charges for room board and tuition are $51.81



Bill for musical tuition and board is $56.25
>

Bill from New London School
Bill from New London School, Mar. 12, 1855
Markham Family Papers
Letter from Salem, May 5, 1853
Letter from Salem Seminary, May 5, 1853, page 2
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers


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"You have taken music lessons long enough to begin to know how much labor they require "


"I think a certain 'Sem' of which you spoke, will put the Finishing 'polish' upon country gawkins like myself most completely"
>

Letter from Salem, May 5, 1853
Letter from Salem, May 5, 1853, page 4
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
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Public Speaking & Public Examinations



Kingston Academy

Kingston Academy
Small Broadsides Collection

Tests were frequent, intense, and in public during this period; student progress was examined before a large public audience. Teachers whose students excelled at oral examinations gained renown as educators. The public examinations at Troy Female Seminary led by Emma Willard helped change the belief that women's intellects were incapable of advanced studies.5

Troy Female Seminary Photo

Academies put on public exhibits, colloquies, and scenes from plays at the end of their school term. Women spoke publicly at these school events, but in the Victorian era, women's public speaking became a flash point of controversy. Some Victorians insisted on women's complete reticence in public, that women should never contradict a man, and that voicing a strong opinion in front of a man was unladylike. "Strong-minded" women and women who had been raised without the advantages of such refined morality rejected this. Most schools tried to appease both sides and steer a moderate course. Some, like Oberlin College, addressed the issues head-on, and found themselves in a morass of fine distinctions about what and where women could speak.6

Photo credit: County Atlas of Rensselaer, New York 7

Selected Students Letters About Public Speaking

Kingston Exhibit Broadside
Kingston Academy, Kingston, New York, October 1808
Small Broadsides Collection


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Four young women students appeared in this public exhibit, playing the parts of women in theatrical scenes.



"Minnie Jewell received that piece of colloquy for examination public. I take a part -- I represent History"
>

Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute
Letter from Ingham Collegiate Institute, May 1854
Kendall-Brown Family Papers
Letter from Troy Female Seminary
Letter from Troy Female Seminary, Feb. 24, 1833
Cole Family Papers


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"Our examination closed last Wednesday evening. . .I came up five times, once in French, twice in Euclid, and twice in Paley. The Examination was very well attended the room was crowded a greater part of the time. Mrs. Willard thought that the classes appeared as well as they ever had before."


"And the dreadful, rather dreaded, ordeal of entrance examination, you passed through without a faint or even flush"
>

Letter to Mt. Holyoke student, March 2, 1853 pg. 1
Letter to Sarah Talcott at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, March 2, 1853
Talcott Family Papers
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Reading Between the Lines

How expensive (compared to academic subjects) were the music and art courses that some students took? Is this a measure of their importance to the students? Can you find any evidence of their appeal in reading the letters?

Writing the history of the evolution of the female curriculum relies heavily on the pronouncements by women educators like Catharine Beecher and Emma Willard. After reading these letters, do you think students--as consumers--played a role? How would our understanding of women's education change if we gave the student's perspective the center stage?

Related Primary Source Materials at the Clements Library
Bartlett, Montgomery Young ladies' astronomy 1825
Phelps, Almira Lincoln Familiar lectures on botany 1829
Seiss, Joseph Augustus The arts of design 1845
See also the addresses on female education listed in the "Seminaries & Academies" section.
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Secondary Sources for Female Curriculum

1Susanna Rowson," Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 3. Ed. James, ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, 202-204.

2Sizer, Theodore R., ed. Age of the Academies. Classics in Education Series. No. 22. New York: Teachers College Press, 1964. Sizer gives an excellent account of the development of academies and their curriculums.

3The prevalence of composition in the female curriculum can be seen in the annual reports sent by the Regents of the University of New York to the State legislature. Male and female students at coeducational academies were not listed separately in the statistical sections until 1843, but before that period, female seminaries sent reports that included subjects taught. See "Report of the Regents of the University of New York," Journal of the Senate of the State of New York, for the years 1798-1860.
Jane Johnson Lewis, "Women writers in the 19th century," About, Inc. See at http://womenshistory.about.com/od/writers19th/ (Viewed July 26, 2005.)

4Sigourney, Lydia. The writings of Nancy Maria Hyde, of Norwich, Conn. : connected with a sketch of her life. Norwich [Conn.] : Printed by R. Hubbard, 1816. Her description of artistic studies is balanced. See also Alma Lutz, Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929, 15-32. Willard's account is somewhat derisive of the artistic education she received.

5Marr, Harriet Webster. Old New England Academies Founded before 1826. New York, Comet Press, 1959, 168-231.
Marr, Harriet Webster. Atkinson Academy: The Early Years. N.p., 1940, 40-42. Marr describes a controversy about girls learning elocution.
Pond, Jean S. Bradford: A New England Academy. Bradford, MA: Bradford Academy Alumnae Association, 1930, 30, 35, 49-53.

6Fletcher, Robert S. A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through the Civil War. 2 Vols. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1943. Fletcher describes the several controversies among faculty and townfolk when women students and graduates requested to speak publicly.

7Beers, Frederick W. County Atlas of Rensselaer, New York. From recent and actual surveys and records under the superintendence of F. W. Beers. New York: F. W. Beers and Co., 1876.