Routines & Diversions

Student Boarding

Gender

Women's Education
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Routines & Diversions


Student life is an area of ongoing interest by historians, since so little has been written or known about the experience of students. Instead, existing records, such as this long list of rules and regulations, have given the impression that nineteenth century students suffered under stiff, regulated regimes. However, the following student letters open new understandings of student experiences. Students describe their excitement in their new experiences as well as the tedium of routine.


In many ways going away to school was a family affair. These letters show that some parents sent clothing, food, and money--none of which students could easily purchase. Other families moved to the town in which their children attended school to keep their children under the parental roof while they were educated.


In these letters, a surprising number of students complained of mental exhaustion, studying late into the night, rising early for breakfast with almost no time to themselves during the day.




Regulations of Springfield Female Seminary
Small Broadsides Collection

Selected Letters About Routines and Diversions

Letters from Ohio Wesleyan University, Jan. 31, 1886
Letters from Ohio Wesleyan University, Jan. 31, 1886,
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers

<
"There isn't any news here, nothing but eat, sleep, walk, & study."



"I must tell you now how I pass my time. . ."
>

Shippen-Eckert Letter, Dec. 19, 1837, page 3
Letter from Pennsylvania Boarding School, Dec. 19, 1837, page 3,
Shippen-Eckert Family Papers
Letter from Salem Female Seminary, May 14, 1853 pg. 2
Letter from Salem Female Seminary, May 14, 1853 pg. 2
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers

<
"I am pretty well used up. . .I have had serious thoughts of leaving my studies this spring for a while."


"how I dread to take the parting hand with my beloved schoolmates for there is certainly some of the loveliest girls I ever saw. . ."
>

Letter from East Bloomfield School
Letters from East Bloomfield School, March 2, 1849 pg. 2
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
Letters from East Bloomfield School
Letters from East Bloomfield School, Jan. 26, 1850 pg. 2,
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers

<
"Caroline came back here New Year day & was here for the party. . .there were about 600 here"


"I could hardly content myself within the walls of the 'Intellectual prison' as the girls call the seminary."
>

Letters from Canandaigua Seminary
Letters from Canandaigua Seminary, January 23, 1852,
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
Letters to Mt. Holyoke student, Nov. 26, 1852
Letter to Mt. Holyoke student, Nov. 26, 1852,
Talcott Family Papers

<
"I deem the small amount of household service required of the pupils at Mt. Holyoke. . .necessary & important to the maintenance & welfare of the institution."



"I was very tired having been washing in the morning & ironing in the afternoon. . ."
>

Letter from Salem Female Seminary, May 14, 1853, page 3
Letter from Salem, May 14, 1853 pg. 3
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
Letter about Mt. Holyoke student, February 1843
Letter about Mt. Holyoke student, February 1843,
Dennis Cooley Papers

<
"Amelia came home determined not to return. I am afraid she never intended to remain there, but only to get well clothed, etc."


"Please excuse the shortness of this letter as I cannot think of anything to say."
>

Letter from Bethlehem Female Seminary, Oct. 1, 1838
Barras, Letter from Bethlehem Female Seminary, Oct. 1, 1838,
Elizabeth Barras Papers
Letters to Wilbur Fisk, June 16, 1829
Letter sent to Fisk June 16, 1829,
Wilbur Fisk Papers

<
"I have a sister desirous of attending the academy. She is about 20 years old. . .has never been from home."


"numerous pupils. . .many genteel & self-possessed. . .then there were those who came because they. . .thought it would be cheap."
>

Letters to student at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary
Letters to Mt. Holyoke student, March 2, 1853, pg. 4
Talcott Family Papers
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Student Boarding

Clermont Boarding

View Broadside

Very little scholarly attention has been paid to the common practice in the nineteenth century of "boarding" while attending school. The letters in these collections offer first hand glimpses into boarding houses. Many boarding houses boarded both girls and boys--even though schools separated males and females in the dormitories to preserve decorum. Boarding during school years was an opportunity for students to meet others and enlarge their experiences. Some boarding situations, as these letters show, also helped students develop social skills.

Students also learned piety and manners while boarding. School officials and faculty wives often boarded students, teaching them manners at the table as well as in the classroom. Faculty wives thus added to the meager income earned by nineteenth century teachers.1

Boarding costs were a significant cost for students attending school. Students from modest backgrounds "boarded themselves" or bought foodstuffs and cooked cooperatively with other students. With few, if any, restaurants or food stores, students had little time to prepare their own meals.2

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Selected Letters About Student Boarding

Letter to Dec. 15, 1869
Harriet Kendall Letter, Dec. 15, 1869 pg. 3
Harriet J. Kendall Papers

<
"We are all moved into the next house"



"Ma wants to remain with Brother & I while we remain at school. . .If you could find us a room or rooms. . ."
>

Harriet Kendall Letter, undated
Harriet Kendall Letter, dated Thurs AM
Harriet J. Kendall Papers
Harriet Kendall Letter
Harriet Kendall Letter, Dec. 15, 1860,
Harriet J. Kendall Papers

<
"the clock has just struck 3 I wouldn't dare sit up like this in the other [boarding] house."


"I am in the family of a physician. . .with regard to my boarding place. . .I am a fortunate mortal."
>

Letter to Lydia Clark, May 5, 1860
Letter to Lydia Clark, May 5, 1860, pg. 6
Harriet J. Kendall Papers
Margaret Bailey Autobiographical Notes
Margaret Bailey Autobiographical Notes, undated
Norton Strange Townsend Papers

<
"My funds were not sufficient to keep me in school so long, so I worked part of the time for 1/2 my board & part of the time boarded myself."


"Mr. & Mrs. E.[Emerson] who thought I had better continue with them. . .offered to reduce my expenses to 8, 1, 50 cts a week till the money, which your Pa sent me was gone, then let me work for my board"
>

Letter from Byfield, Dec. 23, 1812
Letter from Byfield, Dec. 23, 1812
Sophia Sawyer,
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Gender

Sketch of headmaster at boarding school
"I never had an flirtation nor elopement in my school!!!!!"
Sketch from Unidentified Boarding School Student
Unidentified letter from Agnes to Alice,
Pen and Ink Collection
Headmasters and matrons could be authoritarian or empathetic. This sketch by a student illustrates that students sometimes despised their teachers. In private schools, there was no appeal to a higher authority; students could find support in each other or leave. Some parents were concerned about their children's safety while at schools and moved the whole family to the town where daughters or sons attended school in order to keep them under the parental roof during their education.3

School rules at coeducational institutions forbad boys and girls to associate, date, or even talk outside of class. These rules became more, rather than less restrictive during the nineteenth century.4 Despite rigid restrictions on contact between students, it was not uncommon for male teachers to marry one of the advanced female students. Letters by female students indicate some wariness on their part around "old bachelor" teachers.

Female friendship, even passionate friendships between women students were expected and enjoyed by young women away at school. Kissing and cuddling were among the joys of school life, and young women declared passionate fondness and love for each other--despite the recognition that they would seldom meet again after their school years ended.5

Selected Letters About Gender in Academies and Seminaries

Letter to Betty Crowder, Sept. 23rd
Letter to Betty Crowder, dated Sept. 23rd, pg. 2
American Education Collection

<
"My old chum William & I get on finely, we hug and kiss as much as we want, & today I took her up on the floor & tried to make her dance."



it would make you blush to receive such a compliment from a gentleman [professor] as he paid me the other day I reckon I will 'keep alert' for he is an Old Batch recollect!"
>

Letter from Canandaigua Seminary, Feb. 22, 1853
Letter from Canandaigua Seminary, Feb. 22, 1853, pg. 4
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
Letter from Canandaigua Seminary,
Letter from Canandaigua Seminary, Nov. 21, 1852
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers

<
"We have to eat at tables with all the boys--At first I was so frightened I could scarcely eat a mouthful, but I don't care much for them now."


"The boys were forbidden to go to the theatre Thursday night--about 40 of them went. They put on mustaches and disguised themselves in every way they could"
>

Letter from Ohio Wesleyan University, Nov. 1, 1885
Letter from Ohio Wesleyan University, Nov. 1, 1885, pg. 3
Reed-Blackmer Family Papers
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Reading Between the Lines

Letters home were sometimes written under the tutelage of teachers who improved their style and spelling. Compare the letters for style as well as content. Do you think any of these letters were examined by teachers?

The movements of young northern white women were relatively unsupervised compared to European women. What about boarding situations made families comfortable with sending their young daughters to school?

The victim of sexual abuse in the nineteenth century was intensely stigmatized and therefore such scandals were kept secret at all costs. In these circumstances, would students write a letter about harassment? Would such a letter be kept by its recipient? How might students indicate problems given the lack of privacy?

Male students were considered more unruly than female students. Coeducation was sometimes defended because the presence of women tended to inhibit male hijinks. Was there an advantage to women in studying and boarding alongside of men?

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Related Primary Source Materials at the Clements Library
Almost all the manuscript collections presented in this exhibit provide rich information about student life. See the Inventory of Exhibit Sources
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Secondary Sources for Student Life

1Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 45-55. Boydston discusses how boarding added significantly to the income of aspiring families as well as enabling widows to support themselves and children.

2Fletcher, Robert S. A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through the Civil War. 2 Vols. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1843. Fletcher describes the distinctive means that Oberlin students employed to save money while attending college.

3For example, a letter received by Harriet Kendall states that 'Ma wants to be with brother and I while we remain at School.' Letter. "Dear Hattie," Undated [Thurs. AM]. Harriet J. Kendall Collection. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

4Doris Malkmus, "Capable Women and Refined Ladies: Two Visions of American Women's Education, 1790-1861," Ph.D. Diss., University of Iowa, 2001, 213.

5Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," Signs 1, no. 1 (1975): 1-29. Smith-Rosenberg unveiled the homoerotic and homo-affectional quality of female relationships, particularly between students in the nineteenth century.
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