Beyond Mother’s Knee


Public schools obviously were not the only route to learning or most female American children up through colonial times would have been doomed to total ignorance. Fathers, especially clergymen fathers, would often drill their daughters in the Bible and sometimes teach them to read and do simple sums as well. Nothing that enhanced an understanding of the Scriptures could be entirely bad, and arithmetic was considered useful in case a woman were to find herself the sole support of her children. Brothers would sometimes lend or hand down their old school books, and fond uncles might help a favorite and clever niece with her sums. The boys’ tutor was often amenable to a pretty sister’s pleas for lessons. For those girls not fortunate enough to be the daughters of foresighted New England parsons or wealthy tobacco and cotton factors, most colonial towns provided dame schools. These catered to boys as well as to girls of various ages. They offered a supplement to the curriculum at Mother’s Knee, but only just. Because these schools were kept by women who had acquired their own learning haphazardly, the education they offered was motley at best. The solitary teacher could impart no more than she herself knew, and that rarely exceeded the alphabet, the shorter catechism, sewing, knitting, some numbers, and perhaps a recipe for baked beans and brown bread. The actual academic function of these early American institutions seems to have been somewhat exaggerated and romanticized by historians. Dame schools were really no more than small businesses, managed by impoverished women who looked after neighborhood children and saw to it that idle little hands did not make work for the devil. The fees (tuition is too grand a word) were tiny, with threepence a week per child about par. That sum could hardly have paid for a single hornbook for the entire class. The dame school itself was an English idea, transplanted almost intact to the Colonies. Several seem to have been under way by the end of the seventeenth century. A typical example was described by Georee Crabbe:


When a deaf poor patient widow sits And awes some twenty infants as she knits Infants of humble, busy wives who pay Some trifling price for freedom through the day . . . . . . . . . . . . . Her room is small, they cannot widely stray Her threshold high, they cannot run away.…

As early as 1682 the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, permitted Goodwife Mirick to establish one of these prototypical day-care centers, and the dame schools continued as the main fount of female education for more than a hundred years. We can be reasonably sure that they didn’t violate the prevailing notions about female teaching and learning. Crabbe’s poem was written in the 1870’s, and there had been few changes in the intervening century. With rare good luck a child might get a competent schoolmistress like Miriam Wood of Dorchester, whose epitaph notes that “when she died, she scarcely left her mate”—mate, in this case, meaning peer, not husband—but quite often the dame seems to have been less than ideally qualified for her job. There were not many like Miriam Wood, and the New England court records are enlivened by reprimands to these women for their shortcomings. Some dozed through the day, others tippled, and there is one instance of a New Haven dame charged with “Prophane Swearing.” (It is recorded that her profanity was “By my soul!”) In this last unhappy case it was a small female pupil who was hauled into court, despite her plea that she had learned the offending phrase from her teacher.

As the country became more affluent, schoolkeeping gradually began to attract more ambitious types. Older girls were still being excluded from the town seminaries and in many places from the grammar schools as well. A great many people quickly realized that there was money to be made by teaching the children of the new middle class and that they could sell their services for far more than pennies. No special accreditation or qualification was required, and there was no competition from the state. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, platoons of self-styled professors invaded American towns and cities, promising to instruct both sexes and all ages in every known art, science, air, and grace. These projects were popularly known as adventure schools, a phrase that has a pleasant modern ring to it, suggesting open classrooms, free électives, and individual attention.