By Anita Spitzhoff, NAN-Certified Teacher
This article first appeared in the winter 1993 issue of NANthology, the NAN newsletter.
The Moravians give us an interesting insight into the girls’ school. John Amos Comenius, an early Moravian, stated that educating women would give them less time for meddling, so the Moravians took his theory to heart. Moravians settled in Pennsylvania after coming to the new world from Moravia. They settled the towns of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz. A girls’ school was begun in Bethlehem in 1742. It was the first Protestant school for girls in America.
A group of Moravians moved South to form settlements in North Carolina. The largest group named their town, “Salem”, which is a Hebrew word for “Peace”. A girls’ school opened there in 1772 with students facing strict discipline, religious teachings, and a basic education backed with much love and encouragement from the instructors.
Outside of Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, there were virtually no opportunities for an education of any kind for girls in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, or Tennessee. When men of wealth and standing in these areas received word of the girls’ school in Salem, they quickly sought enrollment for their daughters.
In a circular dated May 22, 1804, the school stated that girls would be admitted between the ages of eight and twelve, and at the age of fifteen would terminate their stay unless parents requested that they return home earlier. The “branches” or subjects taught would be reading, grammar, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, German (if desired), and plain needlework. Music, fine needlework, and drawing were extra branches in which instruction were given if expressly desired.
Students spent five or more hours per week of class time working on needlework projects and they were encouraged to do more after class. Parents would pay between $160-$180 per year for each daughter’s education, room, and board. Music and fine needlework were $2 extra per quarter. Instructors, who were often single women from the community, made about $83 a year in their profession.
One young girl who enrolled at the Salem Academy in 1817 was Sarah Childress. She was often seen in the company of a fine gentleman introduced to her by her brother. She married this man, James K. Polk, our President from 1845-1849.
“The status of daughters, sisters, and other women in the home varied with different families,” according to author, Julia Spruill. She also says that “Daughters were usually given a narrower education and inherited a smaller portion of their father’s estate than sons, but they were apparently regarded with much affection and respect.” Most parents encouraged their daughters to become proficient in sewing and running a house at a very early age in preparation for marriage as the worst possible outcome for a daughter was to remain single, labeling her as a “spinster”.
If parents could afford the second level of education the child would be enrolled at a local school or academy. Some parents would send their daughters great distances in order to provide them with a proper education. It is also known that some colonists sent their daughters to boarding schools in England and France to become well-versed in an advanced education including fine needlework, as well as to provide them with an opportunity to learn the manners and social graces of the genteel young woman.
Many women who taught classes, from the Dame School through the academy level, were unmarried women. When the young woman would marry, the school was often closed. In the case of the academy, the instructor was often replaced by a local unmarried woman who exhibited some of the necessary knowledge to teach the enrolled students. Education in schools of colonial days would have been rather inconsistent, at best. It is from these religious-affiliated academies and a few of the well-known boarding schools that we find some of the best records that document a young woman’s education as well as lasting samplers to show the achievement that was accomplished by its student members during the longevity of the school. Today, when antique samplers are located, many can be traced back to specific schools or instructors because of the designs or techniques that are unique to the piece. Names, dates, and additional facts incorporated in the stitchery help to identify the “artist” and the school through prior examples and written records that have been preserved throughout the years. Polly Balch’s school in Newport, Rhode Island, was one of these noted institutions. The pieces were often design masterpieces which showed off the student’s precise stitching abilities.