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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
Such books promised to supplement class work by spelling out “a Girl’s duty to God and her Parents,” instruction on how to make “the choice of a Husband,” and almost always included recipes and household hints. The Matrimonial Preceptor not only gave advice to spinsters and matrons on the capture, care, and feeding of a husband, but it also contained “a Thousand other Points, Essential to Husbands.” The section designed to be read by husbands emphasized patience, understanding, and tolerance. The several “elegant” authors of this anthology of essays rather surprisingly included Mr. Samuel Richardson, better known for Clarissa, and Mr. Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, as well as Alexander Pope, Ovid, and a mixed bag of other illustrious belle-lettrists. The publication notice promised a “Collection of Most Excellent Examples Relating to the Married State,” among which were The Folly of precipitate Matches , The Brutality of Husbands , and The Duties of a good Wife . The witty and satirical tone of Richardson’s, Fielding’s, and Pope’s other works is largely missing in The Matrimonial Preceptor , and Ovid has been drastically edited. As with the rules of arithmetic, peculiar adaptations seem to have been indicated.
Many of the adventure schools hedged their financial risks by functioning as a combination store and educational institution, selling fancywork, “very good Orange-Oyl,” sweetmeats, sewing notions, painted china, and candles along with lessons in dancing, foreign languages, geography, penmanship, and spelling. Usually they were mama-and-papa affairs, with the wife instructing girls in “curious works” and the husband concentrating upon “higher studies.” Curious works covered a great deal of ground—the making of artificial fruits and flowers, the “raising of paste,” enamelling, japanning, quilting, fancy embroidery, and in at least one recorded case “flowering on catgut,” an intriguing accomplishment that has passed into total oblivion, leaving no surviving examples.
The adventure schools advertised heavily in newspapers and journals of the period, often in terms indicating that teaching was not an especially prestigious profession. One Thomas Carroll took several columns in a May, 1765, issue of the New York Mercury to announce a curriculum that would have taxed the entire faculty of Harvard and then proceeded to explain that he “was not under the necessity of coming here to teach, he had views of living more happy, but some unforeseen and unexpected events have happened since his arrival here …,” thus reducing this Renaissance paragon to schoolkeeping and his lady to teaching French knots and quilting.
While they lasted adventure schools attempted to offer something for everyone, including adults, and came in all forms, sizes, and price ranges. They met anywhere and everywhere: “at the Back of Mr. Benson’s Brew-House,” in rented halls, in borrowed parlors, at inns, and from time to time in barns or open fields. The adventurer was usually available for private lessons as well, making house calls “with the utmost discretion,” especially in the case of questionable studies like dancing or French verbs. The entire physical plant usually fitted easily into a carpetbag. In comparison to the pittance paid to the keepers of dame schools the tuition charged by these teachers must have seemed astronomically high—a shilling an hour for language classes and whatever the traffic would stand for the more recondite specialties. Fees were negotiable, and the socially prominent often received favorable rates in the hope that they would lend cachet and attract a wider clientele.
The pretentious and empty promises of the adventure schools eventually aroused considerable criticism. Americans may not yet have appreciated the value of female education, but they seem always to have known the value of a dollar. It was not long before the public realized that flowering on catgut was not so useful an accomplishment for their daughters as ciphering or reading. The more marginal operators began to melt away, and those schoolmasters who hung on were obliged to devote more attention to practical subjects and eliminate many of the patent absurdities.