The Litchfield Female Academy
The Litchfield Female Academy
Rapid Growth . It is not known how many students Sarah Pierce had when she began teaching in her Litchfield, Connecticut, farmhouse in 1792. Six years later the Litchfield Female Academy had thirty pupils, and the town’s most prominent citizens, led by law-school teacher Tapping Reeve and including congressmen, state legislators, and local judges, contributed to a campaign for “the purpose of Building a House for a Female Academy to be placed upon the land of Miss Sally Pierce.” Some 1, 500 students would attend Sarah Pierce’s Academy by 1814, and in 1816 alone it had enrolled 169 students. While the Academy was primarily for girls and young women, at least 125 boys are known to have attended. Students came from all parts of the country, and though a stagecoach ride from New York cost ten dollars, Litchfield was at the hub of New England’s road systems, making the town accessible. Boys tended to be from the Litchfield area, but girls and young women came from as far away as Georgia, Ohio, and even Canada. It would cost as much as $350 each year for tuition, room and board, and other expenses, which made the Litchfield Academy significantly more expensive than most schools of its day, and even more expensive than Harvard or Yale, which would cost only $250 to $300 each year.
Boarding System . Students might board with the Pierce family, but most found rooms with other families in town. One widow living with her two unmarried daughters kept such a close watch on her boarders that students at Tapping Reeve’s law school called her house the “convent.” Rev. Lyman Beecher, who taught religion at the school in exchange for his children’s education, also boarded pupils. At any given time the Beecher home would accommodate eleven of Pierce’s students, a few young men studying for the ministry under Beecher, a law student or two, two servants, as well as the Reverend and Mrs. Beecher and their own eleven children. One Pierce pupil recalled that more than twenty people shared one large kitchen sink and several small wash basins, so “We could not take much of a bath—which was a great trial to me.” Beecher’s daughter Harriet later remembered the whole crowded scene fondly, recalling the “great household inspired by a spirit of cheerfulness and hilarity.” To help the students avoid the dangers which might come from too much cheerfulness and hilarity, Sarah Pierce every Saturday would read the school rules to the students, who would have to copy them down as Miss Pierce expounded on them, noting any that had been broken during the week. Families housing the boarding students also kept a certificate on which to list student faults, and Miss Pierce conducted weekly “fault-telling” sessions, open to the public, at which students would confess their failings. The Litchfield Academy, in Sarah Pierce’s eyes, acted as a bridge between the private world of childhood and the public world in which her students would live as adults. By boarding with families they were partly in the private, family world, but they were also becoming part of a community which needed to enforce its rules.
Lessons. The Litchfield Academy followed a traditional course of instruction. The teacher dictated lessons; the students copied and memorized them, and at the end of the week or the term would recite them from memory. The students studied history, geography, composition, religion, logic, chemistry, philosophy, math, and needlework. For an extra fee students could
study Latin and Greek. With four or five teachers, the Litchfield Academy had one of the largest staffs of any private school of the day: Yale College had only five professors and six tutors in 1812, and most comparable boarding schools had one headmaster and two or three assistant teachers. Sarah Pierce often hired former students to teach, and she sent her nephew, John Brace, to Williams College in 1812 to groom him as her assistant and eventual successor. The way these schools offered instruction allowed them to get by with few teachers: it required only one teacher to read the lesson and listen for proper recitation. The recitation method also allowed schools to function with few books: only the teacher needed to read the text, and the students copied from what was read aloud. The most effective way to teach using this method was through a series of questions and answers, such as in a religious catechism. Most textbooks were written in this question-and-answer format. In 1811 Sarah Pierce wrote her own Universal History textbook, since she had not found a satisfactory history book which used the question-and-answer method.
Wives and Mothers. Few of the students would earn a diploma. Instead, they came for a few years of study to help them become wives and mothers to the nation’s leaders. Some graduates became schoolteachers, but the overwhelming majority married. Of 376 students for whom marriage information is available, 126 married lawyers, and 69 of those lawyers had attended Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield law school. Thirty-seven of the lawyers became judges, and 71 held elective office, including three U.S. senators, twenty-five congressmen, three governors, and five mayors. Sixty-eight husbands were ministers, and five were college professors. Litchfield alumnae tended to marry well; at the time, only one man in one thousand attended college, but 143 of the 747 Litchfield husbands identified were college graduates. While Sarah Pierce might have presented a role model for women seeking a career without marriage, she emphasized the prevailing belief that women’s proper role was in marriage as a partner. The two most famous of the school’s students, though, were Catharine Beecher, who became the preceptress at the Hartford Female Seminary and wrote influential books on household economy, instructing women in how to manage their homes, and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was a savage indictment of the institution of slavery both for its brutality and, more importantly, for its violent disruption of domestic relations.
Theodore Sizer, Nancy Sizer, et al., To Ornament Their Minds: Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy, 1792–1833 (Litchfield, Conn.: Litchfield Historical Society, 1993).