Pierce, Sarah (1767–1852)

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Pierce, Sarah (1767–1852)

American educator who headed Litchfield Female Academy, a school with a national reputation for excellence. Born on June 26, 1767, in Litchfield, Connecticut; died on January 19, 1852, in Litchfield; daughter of John Pierce (a potter and farmer) and Mary (Paterson) Pierce; never married; no children.

Sarah Pierce was an educator in an era when few other occupations were open to women. She was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1767, the youngest of John and Mary Paterson Pierce 's seven children. Her brother John, the only son in the family, took over family responsibilities when their father died, and sent 14-year-old Sarah and her sister Nancy to New York City to be trained in setting up a school. She began her teaching career back in Litchfield in 1792 with just a few students in her dining room.

Litchfield, though not a metropolis, was a center for commerce and culture and boasted a law school. The teacher known as Miss Pierce began to attract a following, and in 1798 citizens of the town donated a building. The school, which would be incorporated as the Litchfield Female Academy in 1827, became nationally known for its excellent academics and the training it offered in conduct and manners. Students, ranging in age from seven years to women in their early 20s, came from all over the country and eventually numbered around 130. A few boys also were enrolled in later years. The attendance of children of well-known national figures was proof of her school's reputation; the Reverend Lyman Beecher of Hartford, for example, sent his children Catharine Beecher , Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher (Stowe ) to Pierce's school, providing religious instruction in exchange for their tuition.

Between 1811 and 1818, Pierce published four volumes entitled Sketches of Universal History Compiled from Several Authors. For Use of Schools. These works, organized in question-and-answer form, had been prompted by complaints about boring textbooks from her students, and were designed to make learning more interesting. At the Litchfield Female Academy, students were taught subjects ranging from academic ones like spelling, grammar, arithmetic, and geography to "feminine" pursuits like painting, needlework, and dancing. Young men of the town's law school participated in some of the school's dancing and dramatic events; the plays presented featured wholesome scripts written by Pierce herself. Atypical of the era, in which physical activity was generally thought harmful for growing girls, she also saw to it that her students got sufficient exercise.

Pierce never married, dedicating herself wholeheartedly to her school and its pupils. She was described by a former student as a small, fragile-looking person with a firm disposition. Writing to a niece in 1842, she showed her schoolteacher's resolute mindset: "I hope you will be careful to acquire a good style, and a handsome mode of writing letters and notes, as they show a woman's education on more occasions than almost anything else she is called on to perform." After running the school almost wholly by herself, in 1814 she accepted the help of her nephew, John Pierce Brace, whom she had sent to college. He became principal of the school around 1825, while Pierce continued to teach her favorite course, "universal history." She retired in 1833, one year after her nephew had left to head the Hartford Female Seminary, and without their guidance the school declined and closed about ten years later. Her contributions were remembered, however, and at Litchfield's centennial celebration in 1851, one year before her death, the chief justice of Connecticut praised her for giving "a new tone to female education" in the country.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor