In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 12

Ornamental and Useful Accomplishments:
Schoolgirl Education and Deerfield Academy, 1800-1830

By Suzanne L.Flynt
Deerfield, Massachusetts: Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Deerfield Academy, 1988, pp. 7-13.


"In all nations a good education is that which renders the ladies correct in their manners, respectable in their families, and agreeable in society. That education is always wrong which raises a woman above the duties of her station."

Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America, Boston, 1790.

Silhouette of Caroline Stebbins.
Figure 1. Silhouette of Caroline Stebbins (1789-1865), c. 1804. Caroline was the daughter of Joseph and Lucy (Frary) Stebbins of Deerfield. She attended Deerfield Academy variously between 1804 and 1807. In 1810, she married Seth Sheldon of Deerfield. Memorial Hall Museum. Gift of George Sheldon.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, female education was acknowledged as necessary for improving the intellectual and moral character of young women. Within strict boundaries set by society, their advancement was encouraged by liberal educators. While knowledge of the basics was an important achievement in female education, mastery of the ornamental accomplishments was essential to becoming a lady.

Deerfield has long recognized the importance of educating its children. Primary education outside the home was available in Deerfield as early as 1698, when the town voted to erect a school house. Eighteenth-century town records frequently mention the hiring of a school master, and beginning in 1728, the town occasionally employed a school dame. In 1787 the town was divided into six school districts, and education became available to all children in the community. The pupils, referred to as scholars, were between the ages of four and fifteen. In 1802 the Town Street School District voted "to keep one Man School & two Women Schools" but stipulated that "no children under eight years old shall be sent to the Man's School."1 The male instructor, paid approximately twice the salary of a female counterpart, was thought to be better qualified to teach the older children.

The primary school curriculum varied according to the instructor, with reading and writing being the universal goal. For young girls another discipline, which might be considered of equal importance, was learning to stitch a sampler - a useful and necessary skill for the life of sewing and mending which lay ahead. A large group of related samplers worked by local girls between the ages of six and

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twelve, date within a twenty-year period, 1794 to 1814. In 1798, when Caroline Stebbins (Figure 1) was nine years old, she completed her sampler (Figure 2). In 1809, when ten year old Mary Hawks stitched hers, she depended upon the same set of design elements that Caroline had used. These recurring floral, bird, and animal motifs in samplers worked in Deerfield and in surrounding communities demonstrate that patterns were widely shared among relatives, neighbors, and instructors, creating an identifiable regional style. A number of samplers survive today, products of young girls who went on to receive a secondary education, where they later completed more difficult needlework or painting projects.

Sampler made by Caroline Stebbins.
Figure 2. Sampler made by "Caroline Stebbins/AE 9 1798." Caroline confined the ubiquitous alphabet to the upper section of her sampler and devoted the remainder of the embroidery to birds, flowers and animals which were surely more enjoyable for a young girl to stitch. Memorial Hall Museum. Gift of George Sheldon, 1893.

If eighteenth-century Deerfield parents wanted their children to receive further education, it was necessary to look beyond Deerfield. In the summer of 1760, the Reverend Jonathan Ashley (1712-1780), sent his seventeen year old daughter Dolly to Boston with the hope that she would "return with some useful improvements," but he was greatly concerned that she would be "exposed to innumerable temptations" and that a young woman who was not careful could become "contemptible if after she has spent a summer in Boston; she appears haughty & disdain full, and can talk of nothing but dress & fashions..."2 The Reverend Ashley encouraged his daughter to "learn many excellent things, & especially that which is virtuous" and to "shun everything that is sinfull and that savors of pride & haughtiness: be upon your guard against every temptation; learn to be frugal amidst an abundance, & moderate your desires whilst a thousand things court your fancy..."3

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In 1787 fifteen concerned Deerfield residents joined to form the Proprietors of the New School House which would offer a "higher grade of instruction." The proprietors bought shares to underwrite the cost of building a schoolhouse, and each share allowed the owner to send two pupils to the school, which opened in 1788. Historian George Sheldon perceived this school to the "germ from which the Deerfield Academy sprung ten years later." 4

Deerfield Academy, which opened in January 1799, was established for "...the promotion of piety, religion, and morality, and for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences, and all other useful learning."5 Qualifica tions for admissions were modest, requiring only that "Youth of both sexes, provided they are found, in a degree, capable of reading and writing, may be admitted to the Academy."6 The education of young ladies was considered important so that not only "...the Fathers, but, that the future Mothers of our race, may be richly furnished to train up their children to learning and virtue, and to become the Timothies, and Pauls, the Moseses, and Solomons, of succeeding ages."7

Education for young women in the late eighteenth century was advocated by forward thinking educators, but its

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desirability was of dubious concern to some young ladies. A play given at a Greenfield school in 1799 had one of the young female characters objecting to attending school with the excuse that "Uncle Tristam says he hates to have girls go to school, it makes them so dam'd uppish & so deuced proud that they won't work" and "How will the young fellows take it if we shine away & don't like their humdrum ways - Won't they be as mad as vengeance--& associate with the girls that don't go to school?"8 With the prospect of a future confined to household employment, it was of questionable usefulness for many young women to want extensive educations, since "To be obedient daughters, faithful wives, and prudent mothers; to be useful in the affairs of a house; to be sensible companions, and affectionate friends, are, without a doubt, the principal objects of female daty."9 It was with these often repeated sentiments that fathers dared to send their daughters to be educated at Deer field Academy (Figure 3).

Silhouette of Persis Sheldon.
Figure 3. Silhouette of Persis Sheldon (1785-1804), c.1804. Persis, the daughter of John and Persis (Hoyt) Sheldon, attended Deerfield Academy in 1800. Memorial Hall Museum. Gift of George Sheldon, 1893.

The Academy building, probably designed by Asher Benjamin (1773-1845), was a two-story symmetrical structure with two doorways embellished with semi-circular fan lights at the front. Preceptor Claudius Herrick's 1799 description of the interior arrangement includes details of room usage:

The Academy is an elegant Edifice, having, on the lower floor, four rooms, one for the English school, one for the Latin, Greek School, the Preceptor's room, and a room for the Museum and Library. The upper room, being all in one, is used for examinations, and exhibitions... We had upwards of 20 in Latin and Greek, between 20 and 30 young Ladies studying English Grammar & Geography...10

Beginning in 1797, curiosities from around the world, along with the important local Indian artifacts, were collected for the Deerfield Academy Museum. The Museum, an important asset to the Academy, partially survives to day. It is considered one of the earliest museums in the country.11

The school year was divided into four quarters - winter, spring, summer, and fall, with pupils attending as little as one quarter or occasionally as many as four quarters a year. Each quarter lasted eleven or twelve weeks. Deerfield Academy enrollment lists show that only a few girls attended during the winter months from 1799 to 1802, while none enrolled for winter terms from 1803 to 1810. By far the most popular quarter for females was the summer. Academy pupils were usually in their teens, but students as young as ten or as old as thirty were also enrolled (Figures 7). Familial obligations, working on the farm or at-

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tending a sick family member, took priority over academic aspirations, and often the age of a pupil depended more on family circumstances than on aptitude.

Portrait of Rhoda Wright Smith.
Figure 7. Portrait of Rhoda Wright Smith (1775-1818), c. 1794. Rhoda Smith of Northfield was twenty-five years old when she attended Deerfield Academy in the fall quarter of 1800, making her one of the older students. Rhoda's brother-in-law, Ebenezer Hinsdale Williams of Deerfield, paid her tuition. In 1807, she married Henry Bardwell and settled in Deerfield. Memorial Hall Museum. Gift of Mrs. C.E.B. Allen, 1889.

The tuition for Deerfield Academy was set in 1798 by the Trustees: "$2.00 a quarter for each scholar instructed in reading, writing and English grammar. $2.50 for each scholar instructed in any other branch of literature. Plus an equal proportion of the Fuel. 17 cents for each quarter for the purpose of defraying contingent charges."12

On the last Tuesday in each quarter, public examinations of the pupils were held "in the various branches of academic learning," and, twice a year, the students would demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge during a program of "speeches, declamations, dialogues, and orations"13 attended by parents, trustees, and townspeople. These exhibitions also provided an opportunity to display accomplishments in ornamental branches. Afterwards, pupils and their guests celebrated with an Exhibition Ball.

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