October 29, 2014

When I Was an 1855 Seminary Teacher...

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, 
origin and culture is like a tree without roots."
~Marcus Garvey

This past Columbus Day was the last day of the regular season at the Genesee Country Museum, so this post is quite overdue...In other words, yippee, I survived my first season as an interpreter!  In fact, my lead gave me a terrific evaluation that ended with "all in all she has done extremely well this season, and I look forward to her future involvement here in the village if that is in her plans."  (Um...yes, yes, YES - I totally want to interpret again next year!!)

First, I want to shout out a huge thank you to all of my fellow seminarians, coworkers & Ward-Hovey staff for making it such a terrific first season!!  The museum is the best place I have ever had the privilege of working at with the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing!  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In addition to my internship this season, I had the privilege of interpreting in the Romulus Female Seminary, a private school for girls founded in 1855,  on alternating "A" weekends.  The museum "interpreters" help bring the museum to life - dressed in period correct clothing, we are stationed in the various historical building to help bridge the past to the present.  We take the place of a stationary exhibit, engaging visitors in discussion about various historical topics related to the aspects of 19th century life represented in our respective buildings.  For instance, some of the main themes of the seminary are discussing the history of the building itself, 19th century education and the everyday life of a female student who may have attended the seminary in 1855.

I definitely had an overall positive experience - loving all of the different museum events I had the chance to work (1812 & Civil War weekend, felting during the Fiddler's Fair & Fiber Fest, running a calling card activity during Laura Ingalls Wilder Weekend, and so many more), all of the interesting stories and tidbits from visitors and all of the "pop quizzes" I gave my "students."  Not only is the history of the building and 19th century education fascinating, but the interactive environment of the seminary really adds another positive dynamic to the visitors’ living history museum stay.  There was nothing better than having a classroom full of children eager to try out the old fashioned ink pens and slates!  I really had a lot of fun with the "teacher"role quizzing them on the curriculum they may have learned in 1855 by asking what they study at their schools’ today.  And, honestly, I learned just as much (and so much more) from the guests this season as I hope they learned from me!

Now, having been an 1855 seminary teacher for the summer, it's time for a history lesson...

Early Beginnings for Female Education:  

(Image via: https://yesteryearsnews.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/a-common-substantive-of-the-masculine-gender/)

Just around the turn of the 19th century, private "select" schools emerged in upstate New York to offer girls opportunities in higher education.  These private academies were only established in part to give wealthy girls equivalent educations to their male counterparts; and more so to meet the concerns of churches that young ladies would be properly instructed to lead morally upright lives within their homes, and within this so called cult of domesticity.  By the mid-19th century, the focus of education came to reflect an expanding economic front in commerce and manufacturing.  Schools were instructed to promote practical and useful knowledge, as well as the much valued areas of classical learning.

The Romulus Female Seminary: 

The Romulus Female Seminary was founded in 1855 and built on what is now known as Cayuga Street by the grocer, Enos Smith Vail.  In fact, ironically, the only particular student that we know attended this particular seminary was Vail's son, James, who served as both the janitor and bell ringer while he received his education here (a fact I make sure the young gentlemen visitors hear before they run out of the "girls'" school).  Two of the most common questions referring to the building I received were does "seminary" refer to priests and was this a boarding school.  First, I assure them that "seminary" in this case refers to a school of higher learning (training female priests would be much too radical for 1855!) and, second, this school was purposefully established in Romulusville so that the girls would not have to be sent away to board.

(Image via: http://backroadstraveller.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-romulus-female-seminary.html

Built towards the end of the Greek Revival period, the school's architecture models the basic elements of the style with two square columns supporting a wide portico and pediment.  The inside features a washroom to the right, cloak room to the left and spacious classroom.  The outhouse is around the back.  In 1883, however, the seminary closed, most likely due to financial problems with the dawning of free, public, high school educations.  The building was then purchased by the Presbyterian Church of Romulus and converted into its chapel.  (And, one of my most memorable visitors this season said she actually remembered having her girl scout meetings and Sunday school in this building!)

There is also an interesting article here discussing further what became of the building after the school closed: http://www.co.seneca.ny.us/history/The%20Romulus%20Female%20Seminary.pdf

More recently, the building was acquired and moved to its current site in 1969-1970.  In fact, in 2009, the museum received two large grants that allowed it to transform the previous stationary exhibit into the interactive space proudly used for educational programs today.  Changes, based off extensive research of typical 1850s seminaries, were made including returning the chimney and cylinder stove back to their original location in the center of the room, removing the door at the rear of the building, adding a raised platform for the teacher, and refurnishing the building with reproductions based off 1850s models.

Basics of Student Lives & School Operations:

The Romulus Female Seminary served as a day school for perhaps twenty girls, educating them in the manners and mores of proper society as well as offering aspects of classical education.  Tuition was charged by the semester, with extra fees (an additional eight dollars) for specific courses like the finer arts and music.  At eight dollars a semester, three semesters a year, the expenses added up quickly.  Families not only had to afford the monetary cost, but spare the extra pair of hands at home; thus, these students would be from upper and middle class homes and were not needed as labor.  Few students completed their educations, as they were of marriage age and good breeding, though some could have attended college to become teachers.

The many rules and regulations of the Romulus Female Seminary that governed the lives of students inside and outside of the building.  Make sure to read number 21 - a favorite with many of the visiting teachers, students not so much...

It is assumed that the teachers of this seminary were single, young women with degrees from "normal schools," schools that were specifically established to train teachers, or high school diplomas from similar academies.  The typical annual salary for a teacher was two-hundred dollars a year and they required boarding provisions.  According to census data, in 1860, Etta Hocomb, 19 years of age, served as the teacher at the Romulus seminary and boarded with the 79-year-old farmer, Thomas Biscay, and his wife, Hanna.  Likewise, in 1870, Clara Note, 18 years of age, was the teacher and boarded with the Swarthout family.  

Mid-19th Century Curriculum:

The specific curriculum that was offered at the Romulus Female Seminary is unknown; however, we interpret a general curriculum that was typical of other mid-19th century female seminaries.  Quite comparable to the modern high school curriculum, students received a rather progressive, well-rounded, liberal arts education.  The basic courses of classical learning included: history (ancient & modern), philosophy, logic, physiology, geography, math (simple arithmetic, algebra, geometry & trigonometry), and English (grammar, literature, rhetoric, writing, spelling, elocution and penmanship).  Languages, such as French and Latin, the most popular, as well as Greek, German, Italian and Spanish, were taught along with sciences like chemistry and astronomy.  Religion - Biblical history, theology, morality and spirituality - was strongly emphasized and influenced curriculum.

Finer arts like music, often piano, guitar and voice lessons, were offered as well as classes in character development and deportment.  Women, surprisingly, often had more of an academic background before branching off into the "Belles Lettres," receiving instruction in drawing, painting, fancy needlework and embroidery.  Daily exercise such as walking outside and dancing were also required.  Together, instruction in these various accomplishments would make a young lady more proper, desirable and, ultimately, marriageable in the eyes of high society.

The offered curriculum, as well as a view of one of the beautiful, hand-painted window shades.

Below is an excerpt from The Course of Study offered by the Rochester Seminary for Young Ladies:

Primary scholars will be taught the rudiments of Arithmetic, Geography, History of the United States, Reading, Writing and Spelling.  The following scheme gives a view of the studies of each year as pursued in regular order.  The Course may be varied, if desirable.  

First Year
First Half Term - Review of Modern Geography, Arithmetic, Ancient Geography, Physiology, Latin Grammar.
Second Half Term - Ancient History, Botany commenced, Algebra, Latin Reader.

Second Year
First Half Term - Ancient History completed, Rhetoric, Algebra completed.  English Grammar, Sacred History from the Bible.
Second Half Term - Modern History commenced, Geometry, a Modern Language, Astronomy.

Junior Year
First Half Term - Modern History, Geometry, Chemistry, a Modern Language or Latin.
Second Half Term - Geology, Moral Philosophy, Trigonometry, Ancient or Modern Language.

Senior Year
First Half Term - Geology, Moral Philosophy, Trigonometry, Ancient or Modern Language.
Second Half Term - Mental Philosophy, Butler's Analogy, General Literature, and review of other studies in connection with English Composition.

Current Display Features:  The major furnishings of the Romulus Female Seminary include the reproduction student benches and desks, each equipped with slates and soapstone pieces (a mineral substituted for chalk that wielders often use and we prefer because it lasts longer, feels nicer, and comes without the residue.)

We also are supplied with plenty of paper, ink and calligraphy pens to encourage visitors to try their hands at our fancy script alphabet!  In the mid-1800s, children as young as age five would have begun learning cursive in their one room school houses, while many of my school age scholars have never written in cursive before.  (All season long, many parents stated their displeasure at cursive having been removed from their children's curriculum.)

The cylinder stove, located in the center of the room, kept students from freezing during the cold, harsh, upstate New York winters.  Only the best writers would have occupied the desks closest to the stove to keep their ink from freezing (now how's that for motivation...)

Another highlight of the building is the square grand piano, or pianoforte, made of rosewood, cast iron legs and ivory keys.  It is playable and many accomplished pianists graced us with their talents this season!

You can not have a school without proper teaching equipment - a chalkboard, various maps (including a period correct map of the State, two of the country and one of the world), and a well stocked science department with plenty of shells, fossils, plants and stuffed birds to study.  

A world map depicting British trade routes and possessions - my personal favorite
as it is the only map I've ever seen with the Americas on the left side. 

The thirty star flag of time & an early 19th century map of the United States.

The classroom "pets" - a Wardian Case, named for the gent who invented it, or, as it is better known, a terrarium.  Inside, an oyster plant, strawberry begonia, snake's tongue and ivy called this self-sufficient environment home.  On the floor next to the case stands a mother of a thousand plant that bloomed all summer long.

The class vasculum, often mistaken for its later use as a lunchbox, which would have been
filled with water and used to transport live botanical specimens for further study.

And, finally, of course, the antique teacher's desk with a teacher prepared and ready for her next class of young scholars!

Dressed in my best schoolmarm attire.
The view from the teacher's desk.

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