Litchfield Female Academy History

The Litchfield Female Academy, founded in 1792 by Sarah Pierce, was one of the most important institutions of female education in the United States. During the 30 years after its opening the school enrolled more than 2,000 students from 17 states and territories of the new republic, as well as Canada and the West Indies. Some 1,848 students known to have attended the school have been identified through school lists, diaries and journals, correspondence, as well as art and needlework done at the school. Many more, unidentified to date, attended, especially before 1814, when formal attendance lists were first kept. The longevity of the school, the size of the enrollments, the wide geographic distribution of the student body, the development of the curriculum and the training of teachers, all distinguish it from the numerous other female academies of the Early Republic. The young women were exposed to ideas and customs from all the relatively isolated parts of the new nation, developing a more national perspective than most Americans of the period.

Sarah Pierce, born in 1767, was the fifth child and fourth daughter of Litchfield farmer and potter, John Pierce, and his wife Mary Paterson. Sarah’s mother died in 1770 and two years later her father remarried and had three more children. Her father died in 1783, leaving her brother John Pierce, responsible for his step-mother and seven younger siblings. During the Revolution, Pierce had a distinguished record, rising to become the Assistant Paymaster of the Continental Army, and personal friend of General Washington. Following the close of the war, he was named Commissioner of the Army, responsible for settling the army’s debts. John Pierce became engaged to Ann Bard, the daughter of Dr. John Bard, Washington’s personal doctor in New York. In order to marry, Pierce sent his younger sisters Mary and Sarah to New York City schools specifically to train to become teachers so that they could help support their step-mother and younger half-siblings. Returning to Litchfield, Sarah Pierce brought a few students with her from New York and established her school. It was a family undertaking as her sister Mary handled the boarders and the school accounts, while her sister Susan’s husband, James Brace, also taught in the school.

More than 80 percent of the students were from out of town and boarded with families throughout Litchfield, under Sarah Pierce’s supervision. The young women were well integrated into the social, religious and cultural life of the town, known for its staunch Federalist politics and Congregational religious practice. Prominent residents, including the Reverend Lyman Beecher, Senator Uriah Tracy, Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, Julius Deming, and the Oliver Wolcott family, had family, social, political and business networks which helped attract students to Litchfield. These well-known men also gave occasional lectures and talks to the students. The Reverend Beecher taught religion in exchange for free tuition for his children. The leading men of the town and their wives judged the compositions, maps, art and needlework shown at the school’s annual exhibitions, adding to the school’s fame.

Sarah Pierce seized upon the post-revolutionary rhetoric of Republican Motherhood, which stressed the responsibility of women to provide the early intellectual and moral training of their children, and was believed to be crucial for the survival of the country. She deeply believed in the intellectual equality of the sexes, while holding increased educational opportunities for women would not jeopardize the status quo of separate spheres of activity for men and women. Pierce did not believe women should enter the all male colleges or professions, but believed their work as mothers and in benevolent, charitable and reform organizations was equally, if not more, important, than the work of men.

The Litchfield Female Academy had an academic curriculum which developed and grew throughout its thirty-one year history. In 1792 the school differed little from the large number of small female academies opening throughout the country, especially in the northeastern states. Pierce first offered a limited curriculum of a smattering of English, ancient and European history, geography, arithmetic and composition. The presence of Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield Law School from 1784 to 1833 greatly enhanced the success of Sarah Pierce’s school. The presence of the law school helped the academy to achieve a national reputation. Families from distant homes often sent their daughters to school in Litchfield while their sons were also traveling there to attend the law school. The presence of the two schools ensured an active social life, seen as a part of the educational training of young women. More than 100 of Sarah Pierce’s pupils married students from the Law School, helping to reinforce the fame of the academy. Many students of the two schools later sent their own daughters to the Litchfield Female Academy.

Many educational historians have dismissed the importance of the Litchfield Female Academy because of the supposed emphasis on art and needlework, rather than examining the ways in which Pierce integrated the academic subjects and the ornamental arts, using painting and embroidery to enforce intellectual topics. Unlike most women heading female academies, Pierce was lacking in any talent for art, needlework, music and French, hiring assistant teachers for those subjects. She continued instruction in these traditional disciplines, which were demanded by most parents in the education of their daughters. At the same time however, she was unopposed to developing a more demanding academic curriculum far in advance of most female academies of the period. She sent her nephew, John Pierce Brace, to Williams College to receive training in teaching the “higher branches” of mathematics and science. He joined the school as her assistant in 1814, teaching till 1832 when he left to take over his former student Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Academy.

The growth of the academic curriculum of the school provided an important transition to the latter, better-known schools for women such as Catharine Beecher’s and Emma Willard’s, both of which had their roots in the Litchfield Female Academy. Under Brace the school offered courses in Latin, Moral Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric and Natural Philosophy, and other subjects whose suitability for women was debated well into the nineteenth century. Diplomas were awarded to girls completing a full course of study. These young women were aware that they were receiving the highest level of education then available to women in the United States.

There has been an assumption that students at the female academies of the Early Republic were drawn from a narrow stratum of elite families. Genealogical and biographical records reveal that the Litchfield Female Academy students came from a wide socio-economic range of families, each with its own rational or agenda for the academy education of their daughters. The wealthiest and the most ambitious sought a “finishing” for their daughters, while many college-educated fathers wanted the highest level of intellectual education then available for their daughters. For women from the “middling” classes, teaching in or opening a female academy, which paid far more than teaching in a common school, required academy training in the ornamental subjects. More than 20 students became assistant teachers and 58 students have been identified as having opened their own schools or teaching in other academies. Pierce created an educational philosophy in which all learning – academic, moral, religious and social – was part of the total development of the young women in her school. Proper behavior and emotions were stressed continually through readings from the bible, history, biographies and British periodicals. The subject matter for the students’ art and embroidery were taken from the same sources, always illustrating desired female behavior. Pierce gave frequent lectures on proper conduct in all aspects of life. Girls were given complex credit and debit marks for every aspect of their lives in the school and community. The student writings reveal the young women’s thoughts and attitudes toward a multitude of issues, including education for women, religious conversion, social life, courtship and marriage. The school also encouraged participation in benevolent and charitable work, inspiring many of the women to later develop positions of leadership in nineteenth century women’s reform efforts.

The Litchfield Female Academy was run by Sarah Pierce as a proprietary school. In 1798 the leading men of the town took up a subscription of $385 to build an academy building for Pierce’s school, but left full control of the school to Pierce. She ran the school efficiently making a substantial profit while providing a means of support for many members of her family. It was only in 1827, when Pierce was sixty years old and the school was in decline, that a board of trustees was formed and the school incorporated in order to finance a new building in an attempt to attract more students. The effort was not a success and John Pierce Brace left Litchfield to head the Hartford Female Seminary in 1832. The Board attempted to keep the school going, with former students as teachers, but to no avail. By the following year Pierce ended her 41 year association with the school.

There were many reasons for the rapid decline in students in the later 1820s. The rapid growth of other female academies and seminaries, founded by a new generation of women, promoted a more “advanced” education for women. The Litchfield Law School also closed in 1833, due largely to competition from university law schools. Litchfield’s “golden age” came to an end, and the hill-top town lost its role as an important social, cultural and educational center as industrialization and then the railroads were established in river valleys, resulting in the rapid growth of other cities and towns.