Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Miss Seward's Female Seminary

Miss Seward's Female Seminary
Miss Seward's Female Seminary

Location: Alexander Street, Rochester, New York, USA

Opened: 1839

Closed: 1853

Miss Seward's Female Seminary was founded by Miss Sarah Seward, a graduate of the Troy Female Seminary. (The Troy Female Seminary, in turn, was founded by Emma Willard, an early advocate for women's education, in 1814. The Troy Female Seminary STILL EXISTS as a girls' school though it is now known as the Emma Willard School.) Women who established schools for girls and women were often graduates of girls' schools and/or women's colleges themselves, so Miss Seward's certainly fits that pattern.

Sarah Seward arrived in Rochester in March 1833, and "almost immediately" opened a school for girls at the former United States Hotel Building. "Miss Sayles" (no first name given), who was also a Troy Female Seminary graduate, soon joined this endeavor as Sarah's assistant. According to the Semi-Centennial History of the City of Rochester,

Miss Seward's school speedily achieved great success. After continuing in the United States Hotel for one year it was removed to the large stone building at the corner of Plymouth avenue and Spring street, the present site of the First Presbyterian church. During its continuance at that place for nearly two years, and till its removal to Alexander street in the autumn of 1835, it continued to flourish, and there followed an awakening of the people of Rochester to an appreciation of the value of higher female education.

As the Semi-Centennial History goes on to elaborate,

The school building which Miss Seward caused to be erected in that year was large, having sixty-four feet front. It was attractive in appearance, and the handsome grounds around the building were four or five acres in extent. All the appointments were complete and appropriate to a boarding-school for young ladies. The sum expended by Miss Seward and her friends for the grounds, buildings, scientific apparatus and other requisites to a large institution for higher female education exceeded $12,000. The ability and skill, as teachers, of Miss Seward and her assistants were justly appreciated not only in Rochester but throughout the state and to some extent in other states. The first year after its establishment the school numbered nearly a hundred pupils, many of whom were from various parts of New York and from other states and from Canada, and Miss Seward's seminary took front rank with the best like institutions in the country. It was incorporated in 1838.

Unlike many of the early women's colleges, girls' schools like Miss Seward's were very much womyn's spaces--run by and for the benefit of women and girls. According to a report published in 1838, all of the school's administrators and teachers were women. Here's the list:

Miss Sarah T. Seward, Principal and Teacher of Teacher of Ethics and Metaphysics.

Miss Philena Fobes, Teacher in Drawing, Painting, and Mathematics.

Miss Martha Raymond, Teacher in the French Language.

Miss Sarah C. Eaton, Teacher in Natural Science.

Miss Mary A. Thorpe, Teacher in the Primary Department.

Miss Julia R. Hall is also an assistant teacher.

In fact, the role of men at this place was surprisingly peripheral:

Lectures on history, botany, and elocution are delivered occasionally at the institution at by professional gentlemen of the city.

In addition, we see that the school had a a pretty stubborn streak of independence when it came to the  male-dominated political and economic social structure of the time:

This valuable seminary was erected and is sustained wholly through individual enterprise. "Our friends will recollect," says the late report, "that we have no legislative fund to aid us, no trustees to be interested in our success; and our institution (if it deserves the name) is simply an individual effort to be useful."   

The "late report" was the school's 1837-1838 catalogue, which can be viewed here. Note that the quote above omits the final words: "and the only hope of reward is 'she hath done what she could.'" Interesting how the part about female agency was left out.

In the "late report," you can also find a poem by 13-year-old "Alice" on leaving the school and her grief at losing her beloved "youthful band of sisters." It truly encapsulates what schools like Miss Seward's meant to these young women, and the deep, often life-long connections that were made there.

So how and why did this school finally come to an end? In a nutshell: Miss Sarah Seward got married.

Why did she do this? Social pressure? Desperation? Financial fears? In mid-19th century New York state, a woman who married essentially committed civil suicide. She lost all legal rights she had as a single person--which weren't all that numerous to start with. ("Miss Sayles" at some point got married as well--to Mr. William S. Bishop. For what it's worth.) The Semi-Centennial History explains it thus:

On the marriage of Miss Seward to General Jacob Gould in September, 1841, Jason W. Seward, a brother of Miss Seward and president of the corporation, assumed direction of the institution. It continued its good work under his guidance, aided by Miss Seward's former assistants, till 1848, when it was finally discontinued, or superseded by the Tracy female institute. In 1856 the grounds were sold to Freeman Clarke and the buildings removed to give place to the mansion of Mr. Clarke, who now resides there.

So, despite the careful and laudatory language here, this is essentially what happened: a man (the former principal's brother) managed to seize control of a successful girls' school and "succeeded" in running it into the ground in little more than seven years.

Nowadays, the property is part of the University of Rochester.

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