Phelps, Almira (Hart) Lincoln

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PHELPS, Almira (Hart) Lincoln

Born 15 July 1793, Berlin, Connecticut; died 15 July 1884, Baltimore, Maryland

Daughter of Samuel and Lydia Hensdale Hart; married Samuel Lincoln, 1817 (died 1823); John Phelps, 1832

Almira Lincoln Phelps and her elder sister, Emma Hart Willard, shared a love for study, an aptitude for teaching, and a desire to improve the intellectual status of women. Close association with the pioneering Troy, New York, Female Seminary has made Emma more celebrated than her equally productive but more eclectic sister. Phelps' early schooling was in Berlin, and she later studied at Middlebury and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

After teaching for several years, Phelps married a Federalist editor. Left a widow with two small daughters in 1823, she returned to teaching and to writing to earn a family income. After joining Emma at the Troy Female Seminary, she studied science with Amos Eaton, a professor of natural science at nearby Rensselaer Institute. In 1832 Phelps remarried. She continued to write, and in 1838 her husband urged her to accept the principalship of a promising new seminary in West Chester, Pennsylvania. After brief administrations in Pennsylvania and at the Rahway, New Jersey, Female Institute, Phelps headed the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, from 1841 to 1855.

An imaginative and successful educator, Phelps was also a prolific writer. Her first textbook, Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829), was her most original and useful. Botany was a popular subject, and Phelps' text provided a middle ground between the conversational style of many books written for young ladies and the formal presentation of scientific principles designed for advanced students. Traditional in its reliance on the Linnean artificial classification system, the book provides diagrams and suggestions for study designed to engage the student's participation in learning; appendixes provide all necessary reference material, including a description of genera and species, a dictionary of terms, and a common name index.

Frequently revised and used widely in academies for boys and girls, the volume went through 28 editions (275,000 copies) by 1872. There were 18 editions of an abridged version, Botany for Beginners (1833). Moral observations, literary references, and history were combined with sound science in a text designed to develop specific skills while integrating student learning. The success of the botanical text led Phelps to write books on chemistry, natural philosophy, and geology; but these were more derivative in content and less popular. Familiar Lectures on Chemistry, for example, used similar teaching techniques, but a reliance on household examples circumscribed its audience, and borrowed material caused the book to lack cohesion.

Most of Phelps' writing was intended to educate and elevate young women. Her stories were in the popular, melodramatic, and didactic mode of antebellum novels. Caroline Westerley; or, The Young Traveler from Ohio (1833) presents a series of letters from an older sister to a younger; it is a guide through the New England landscape, an educational commentary on topics from plant life to housing styles, and a moral analysis of people encountered. Sarah Josepha Hale's review found this story "a charming picture of a young girl, engaged in improvement, and finding happiness.…"Phelps' two other novels held more drama but similar purposes. Both Ida Norman; or, Trials and Their Uses (1848) and The Blue Ribbon Society; or, The School Girls' Rebellion (1879) were presented chapter by chapter for evening discussion at Patapsco Institute and were later published.

As educator and writer, Phelps could not resist contemporary discussion about the purpose and nature of education for young women, whether in public addresses, journal articles, or books. Although a domestic feminist, Phelps did not advocate a curriculum to develop household skills, but stressed classical subjects as well as the sciences. Her Lectures to Young Ladies (1833) stressed the need to study widely and to discipline the mind. Discussions of morality became more common in later editions. The Female Student (1836) emphasized the value of study but also stressed the need for a good diet, proper exercise, and proper clothing. This volume, like Lectures, was published as part of the School Library series, under the sanction of the Massachusetts School Board. Phelps moved with the vanguard of women educational reformers of the mid-19th century.

After the Civil War, Phelps retired from teaching but continued to write for national journals. Some of her essays explored the fine arts. Phelps also dedicated her energy to opposing the woman suffrage movement, although she continued to advocate educational equality for women. Phelps's ideas and leadership, so significant to her own generation, were often disregarded or even dismissed by the suffragists and coeducational reformers of the late 19th century. Herself the model of the self-determination she taught, Phelps helped establish the possibility for women's public and political roles.

Other Works:

Address on the Subject of Female Education in Greece and the General Extension of Christian Intercourse Among Females (1831). The Child's Geology (1832). Chemistry for Beginners (1834). Familiar Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1837). Lectures in Chemistry for the Use of Schools, Families, and Private Students (1838). Natural Philosophy for Beginners (1838). Christian Households (1858). Hours with My Pupils (1859; republished as The Educator, 1868). Foreign Correspondence in Relation to the Rebellion in the United States (1863). Our Country, in Its Relations to the Past, Present, and Future (edited by Phelps, 1864). Reviews and Essays on Art, Literature, and Science (1873). Women's Duties and Rights, the Woman's Congress: An Address to the Women of America (1876).


Bolzau, E. L., Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps: Her Life and Work (1936). Lutz, A., Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy (1929). Woody, T., A History of Women's Education in the United States (2 vols., 1929).

Reference works:

DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB.