- Historic Sites
Beyond Mother’s Knee
The prevailing Colonial feeling toward female education was unanimously negative. Learning to read was the first feminist triumph.
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
That, however, is deceptive. The people who ran such schools were usually adventurers in the not very admirable sense of the word: unscrupulous, self-serving, and of doubtful origins and attainments. Many simply equipped themselves with false diplomas and titles from foreign universities and set up shop. The schools continued to operate only as long as they turned a profit. When enrollment dropped, interest waned, or fraud became obvious, the establishment would simply fold and the proprietors move to another town for a fresh start. The newer territories were particularly alluring to the worst of these entrepreneurs, since their reputations could neither precede nor follow them there. A new name, a new prospectus, an ad in the gazette, and they were in business again until scandal or mismanagement obliged them to move on. Such “schools” were not devised for the particular benefit of girls; but because they were independent commercial enterprises, no solvent person was turned away. Thousands of young women did take advantage of the new opportunity and were, in many cases, taken advantage of in return. For boys the adventure schools were an alternative to the strict classicism and religiosity of the academies and seminaries, but for girls they were the only educational possibility between the dame school and marriage.
There was little effort to devise a planned or coherent course of study, though elaborately decorated certificates were awarded upon completion of a series of lessons. The scholar could buy whatever he or she fancied from a mind-bending list. One could take needlework at one place, languages at another, dancing or “ouranology” at a third. (It was a pompous era, and no one was fonder of polysyllables than the professors. Ouranology was sky-watching, but it sounded impressive.) There were no minimum or maximum course requirements, though the schoolmasters naturally made every effort to stock the same subjects offered by the competition, in order to reduce the incidence of school-hopping. By the end of the eighteenth century, according to a nineteenth-century educator, a prosperous New Yorker had a choice of “reading, writing, and arithmetic; Low Dutch, English, French, Latin, Greek; merchants’accounts, algebra, logarithmetical and instrumental arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, plain [ sic ] or spherical, surveying, gauging, dialling, mensuration of superficies and solids; astronomy, the calculation of and projection of the eclipses of the luminaries, planets, places, the projection of the sphere upon the plan of any circle; navigation, uses of charts and globes, geography, anatomy and midwifery.” That list is only partial, but it is representative of the higher studies for sale during the Revolutionary era. The catalogues were protean, but it is impossible to discover how many of these courses were ever available at any given time. The masters of such schools must certainly have left themselves some outs comparable to those in contemporary college bulletins—“not given in the winter of 1779–80,” “offered only to groups of ten or more,” “may be elected only by those who have fulfilled the prerequisites.” There was no dearth of students, but qualified students, especially females, were another matter. Few girls could have proceeded directly from knitting nightcaps in a dame school to “calculation of and projection of the eclipses of the luminaries.” At least one enterprising Pennsylvania teacher seems to have recognized the problem. He advertised that the rules of arithmetic would be “peculiarly adapted to the (female) sex, so as to render them concise and familiar.” A flourishing textbook industry quickly developed to serve the needs of lady scholars. A few of the more popular titles seem to indicate that girls were not always seizing their chance to learn navigation, gauging, and spherical trig. In great demand, however, were The Matrimonial Preceptor; The Compleat Houswife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman; and The Ladies’ Friend, being a treatise on the virtues and qualifications … of the fair sex, so as to render them most agreeable to the sensible part of mankind … to which is annexed, Real Beauty; or the Art of Charming, by an ingenious Poet . All of these appeared during the 1760’s and enjoyed very respectable sales.