University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Boarding School, 1850 Style

Volume X · Winter 1955 · Number 2Boarding School, 1850 Style--JANE HANNA PEASE  [A series of eight folio volumes entitled "Letters from the Hedges" was acquired in 1950 from Mrs. Katherine Oliver Stanley-Brown of Washington, and added to our collection of manuscripts relating to the history of Rochester and western New York. In the volumes are mounted some fourteen hundred letters, invitations, and cards, which comprise the family correspondence of the Schermerhorn family, once resident in Rochester. Jacob Maus Schermerhorn, born in Schenectady and educated at Union College, came in 1824 to Rochester where he soon established himself as lawyer and business man. During the eighteen-forties he moved his family to Homer in Cortland County, but continued his business ties with Rochester, and at his death in 1890, was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. His life combined a deep devotion to evangelical religion, political allegiance to the Whig, and later the Republican party, and successful application to business. The picture of boarding school life in the 1850's which follows is based on a selection of letters from this collection.]  A girls' boarding school in the 1850's was not so very different from its 1950 counterpart. School girls were plagued, then as now, with running out of money, needing clothes, and having far too much school work to permit frequent and long letters home. They enjoyed excursions to men's colleges, holidays at home, and living with a group of girls of their own age. In 1850, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Maus Schermerhorn of Rochester and Homer sent their two older daughters, Matilda and Catherine, to New York where they were enrolled in The Spingler Institute for Young Ladies. The school was on Broadway near Fifteenth Street and faced Union Park, precursor of the present day Union Square. In wet weather the girls complained that Broadway was mud "about the consistency of cream" but occasionally they enjoyed watching sleighs whizzing by on the snow-packed street. "A great show of establishments is made in B'way & with the omnibus sleighs presents a very exciting picture."The Institute itself was, of course, more concerned with the girls' education than with their amusement. Its objects were "by methods of thorough mental development and discipline in elementary studies, by a systematic and progressive course of higher instruction, and suitable attention to physical education, to give the varied mental and moral powers appropriate and symmetrical culture." It reassured parents that they were placing their daughters in an institution prepared "to provide all that is implied in a Home; and in the varied means and Boarding School, 1850 Style influences of mental, moral and spiritual improvement; ... kind and affectionate supervision, … friendly counsel, … and if need be, reproof and restraint." The charge for all this was five hundred dollars which included "Board, Washing and Seat at Church."The Schermerhorns could rest assured that good care would be taken of their daughters. Soon letters were arriving describing the Institute. Matilda outlined her schedule: "an hour is devoted to study before breakfast, then after breakfast and prayers, I study until 1/4 of 8 o'clock when we assemble for chapel exercises. The next 5 hours I am in school, mostly in recitation, and after that at 1/2 past 2 I take Calisthenic exercise, which Mrs. A[bbott] thought we had better do … as the exercise would prepare us in a measure for that of the Gymnasium, if you think it best for us to go there…." Apparently the nineteenth-century girl appreciated "gym" class more than her twentieth-century counterpart, for Matilda goes on to say "I like exercise of this kind very much, and think it does me good, and if I can only become erect, and improve my figure, I shall be more than repaid."Girls in the upper three classes chose their academic program from a list which included natural, mental, and moral philosophy, rhetoric, logic, aesthetics, algebra, geometry, and chemistry. Of her own schedule, embracing Butler's analogy, moral science, geometry, and French, Matilda wrote that they were "all very pleasant studies though requiring much time. We have a most excellent teacher in geometry who though not quite so devoted a mathematician as Mr. Miller, yet has more patience with such dull girls as I am."Chemistry was covered by visiting lecturers, Edward Lasell and Benjamin Silliman. Of great interest to the girls was a plan for heating and lighting houses "which Mr. Payne of Worcester thinks he has discovered, by which hydrogen is separated from water, and made to answer the purpose of fuel & gas, or oil! Just think how easy it will be [to] say Mary or Ann, I think you had better throw another pail of water in the stove, the fire is going out!"Music, too, was included in the program at Spingler. Instruction was offered on the pianoforte, harp, and guitar, but the Schermerhorn girls contented themselves with voice lessons. Occasionally the girls gave concerts for their schoolmates and for a few well chosen guests. Matilda was particularly active in this sort of entertainment and described one at length. "This poor letter seems fated not to reach you but I have been so occupied yesterday and today with preparations for our 'Soirée Musicale,' which comes off this evening, that I have found no time to dispatch this. Mr. & Mrs. Abbott are very particular in allowing the Young Ladies to invite their friends to this one, for he says he does not wish it to be an entertainment for young gentlemen as there is a great danger of its being if they are allowed to invite anyone they choose. So he restricted us to invitations to our parents, and I feared very much that Uncle John & Aunt Elvenah could not be here, but after consultation the[y] gave us permission to invite them…At the Soirée I have a part in a duett [sic] with Miss Carrie Fellowes (who has a lovely voice) and also on the piano with Miss Anna Willet on the harp. I was invited to sing a solo, but I would not trust myself, for I have scarcely confidence to sing in a duett, much more alone…I am getting so much interested in my singing lessons, I cannot make improvement enough, and when I hear Carrie F. sing so well it makes me regret that I did not take lessons of Mme. Marenchelli but her terms are very high, 40 dollars a quarter."There were many things to write home about and prominent in almost all letters were discussions of clothing. "I thank you for your permission to get a silk dress, I really think I need it very much. Had I better get it with Auntie and have Mrs. Prall make it if she fits Kate's muslin well. Kate was obliged to have one for the same reason that I was last year, and I do not think you will regret it on the whole. I need a common straw hat to have trimmed up, to wear until I can get a 'Sunday' best and afterward for a common one… . I think I shall be nicely fitted out with a new silk, my common one, and green delaine for Spring. Do you not think I need a common calico for Spring in school, as my purple one is almost worn out… . If you can spare that black lace you had on your mantilla, perhaps you had better send it to me and I can have it put on my colored one, for a change." Even in 1851, daughters were no inexpensive item.There was much discussion, too, about new styles. "Have you seen the frequent notices in the papers of the change in ladies dress? Last evening a lecture was given before a promiscuous assembly of ladies and gentlemen! A daughter of Gerrit Smith, appeared here in Turkish costume… . It is causing quite a commotion everywhere, and the new style [is] approved of by many gentlemen, Mr. John Abbott among the number, who says the present style of dress among ladies is quite detestable. Do you favor the reform? Next Winter my gymnasium dress will probably be quite à la mode, as that is precisely the style." Shades of the blue jeans and Bermuda shorts controversy!Roommates caused Kate some trouble her last year. "I am in my old room again with Nettie Hollister and a Miss Chapin from Springfield, whom I hope we shall find a pleasant roommate, though she is not pious, and I am very sorry, yet I hope it may all be for the best. I should greatly prefer Louise Davies but it would not do to change now."But the greatest of all the girls' troubles in their years at Spingler was an unexcused overnight absence. "Yesterday afternoon we asked permission of Mrs. Curtiss to go to Auntie's, and said to her if we were not home to dinner she need not feel alarmed about us. She said something about our not being allowed to dine out, without special permission, in reply to Kate's remark we could so she thought on Fridays, and that was the only day, but we did not understand, that it would be against the rules if we should stay. On our way down we were obliged to stop at the Dentist's, which detained us some time, and after that we went to change a pair of morocco gaiters that were too large in Canal Street. We then went immediately to North Moore St. found them already at dinner, and as it was then too late for our dinner here, and there was a very nice one before us there, staid. Uncle J. was at home, and told us if we would spend the evening he would go home with us between 8 & 9. He did not come home however until after 9, because on his arrival at the store, he found a notice for a meeting of which he was president, so he must be there. We then had tea, and it was after 10 when we were through. Then Lewis and Fanny came in to see us, and we could not leave them the moment they came, so we stopped awhile and Uncle J. asked us if we would go home. After some deliberation we concluded to stay, because it was so late, we thought they would rather not see us at all, than so late, and so we unfortunately decided not to go. I had some misgivings in my decision, though I had no idea they would be displeased -and of course had not one feeling of guilt, for I did not think I was doing wrong. This morning we had a nice breakfast, bid them good morning, and walked with Uncle John to Broadway. We rode up with one of the young ladies, and she told us they had been very anxious about us and even angry with us. When we came home, the girls all beset us to know why we did not come home, saying they did not envy us. We came down to dinner and the girls seemed very happy to see us, but very sorry we were not at home last evening. I was saying I was very sorry when Mrs. A[bbott] whom I had not seen before said, Yes, I am very sorry, and shall expect a satisfactory explanation. Kate said she said something about our getting permission to go again, but I did not hear it though I did see her look as cross as I ever saw a human being, she really looked ugly (if it is possible). I have not rendered the explanation yet, and assure you, I am as uncomfortable as I can possibly be, and would give worlds, if I could be put into this letter, and go right home. Do you think we have committed such a sin as others think we have?" Apparently the school relented, since no later letter mentioned any dire punishments.There were other trips which caused less commotion - one to the Dusseldorf Art Galleries, one to the Mercantile Society and Astor Libraries and one to Princeton - the latter bearing little resemblance to the modern college week end. Well chaperoned by the principal and his wife "we left on Friday afternoon at a quarter of five, in the Philadelphia train, and arrived at Princeton about eight, where we met Nettie's brother. He introduced us to Dr. McLane [Maclean] President of the college, who invited us one and all to stay at his house. We declined, of course, and rode in a crazy old stage, to a real country Hotel. Nettie calls the stage, a true Jersey wagon… . The next morning we went over the college. We visited first the Library of Theo. Sem. which was the handsomest building in town. I was surprised to find the college so untidy. The Library was a fine room, and the books very valuable, but so old, they must be of little use, and I would not exchange them for our beautiful library. The lecture rooms were all well arranged, but the apparatus not so fine, at least in not as good order. The picture gallery is just commenced, but had some fine paintings. There was a portrait of Washington hanging in a frame that once enclosed the portrait of George II. After the battle at Princeton, the Americans shot their bullets through the portrait, and destroyed it, and shortly after Gen. Washington sent his own portrait, requesting it to be hung in the same frame. The chapel was a very pretty new building, but we were hurried so, we had scarcely time to enjoy anything. At eleven o'clock, we were in the cars again on our way home."Concerts offered occasional diversions and the girls went to hear Mme. Goldschmidt and Jenny Lind. Of the latter Kate wrote "she is so pure and lovely, that if perfectly silent, there is a charm about her that pleases everyone."Most exciting of the foreign visitors in New York was Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary who came to this country to raise money and win sympathy for Hungarian independence. Arriving in the Winter of 1851, he was greeted as a national hero. Kate described both the preliminary excitement and the parade up Broadway. "The great Hungarian patriot, has at length reached our country, and the same night he came (12 1/2 o'clock at night, or rather he stepped on shore then,) a telegraph came from New Orleans, welcoming 'The Magyar, to the land of the free and the home of the brave.' His welcome will be given either tomorrow or Monday…but Mr. Abbott says there has not probably been as magnificent a reception in this country, since Lafayette was here." The following day Kate added to her letter "The grand reception of Kossuth took place today, and I went down town immediately after breakfast, to ask Uncle John if I might come down to the store and bring some of the girls." He granted permission and the girls arrived at the store after lunch. "Uncle John and Uncle Watts had gone down to the Battery, & before they came back, Grandmother, Auntie, Ellen and the twins came… . After Uncle John came we moved over to the other store where they had made fine arrangements, and seats raised one above the other, so we had a fine opportunity to see all that passed. The procession was an hour and three quarters in passing and Kossuth came nearly last. He had an elevated seat in the center of the carriage, wore a black beaver with a plume, and a black velvet cloak. He has a very fine, handsome intellectual face, and is very graceful. As he passed the store, a little girl was lifted up to give him a bouquet, and he bowed on each side as he passed. Mr. Abbott saw him and heard his address at Castle Garden, and was very much pleased with him. The crowd was immense, and some accidents occurred. The decorations on the line of march were beautiful, particularly the arch over the Battery gates and those over the gates in the Park."The fun of boarding school, however, was too soon over for the Schermerhorn girls. Kate married Lewis Henry of New York, and Matilda returned to Homer. Thus all good things come to an end; but there remained always the nostalgic memories of boarding school, 1850 style.