During the 1700s, girls’ education typically ended around age 12 or 14. Girls were taught the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Boys were able to continue their education past the basics, learning geography, Latin, and history.

Beginning in 1717, Connecticut required every town to have at least one school. Cornwall’s first school is believed to have been held in the home of Rachel Marsh Douglass and her husband, James Douglass. Rachel taught the school during the summer months, while her husband taught during the winter.

In Cornwall, as in all Connecticut towns, a winter school for older boys, taught by a man, was held for three months every year. For the remainder of each year, school would be held at four “women’s schools,” schools that were taught by women.

Illustration from McGuffey’s Eclectic First Reader, 1848, used by Cornwall’s Clark family.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

Illustration from McGuffey’s Eclectic First Reader, 1848, used by Cornwall’s Clark family.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

Young women who wanted to become teachers would need to be proficient in literature and demonstrate good moral character. Advanced education was not deemed necessary, since women were restricted to teaching only the basics. A state survey conducted in 1838 revealed that Connecticut’s towns, generally speaking, paid their male teachers seventy percent more than they paid female teachers.

Cornwall Schools for Girls

At least four private schools for girls are known to have operated in Cornwall during the nineteenth century. The first was the Cornwall Female Academy, operated by a Mrs. Lindon. An 1829 advertisement for the school noted that the course of studies included “all the branches necessary to a substantial education,” along with the normal “ornamental branches” such as needlework. Mrs. Lindon previously taught in New York City and the South. By 1832, the Cornwall Female Academy was closed, replaced by a school for boys.

In 1852, Hopkins T. S. Johnson, frustrated with the local school district, opened a new school near his home in Johnson Hollow, West Cornwall. Nicknamed “Our Bird’s Nest” and remembered fondly by Cornwall residents later in the century, the school was formally called The Young Ladies’ Institute.

The Alger Female Institute opened in the fall of 1864, when the school building, previously a school for boys, was sold to Rev. L. F. Dudley. The Alger Female Institute does not appear to have been a success; by 1867, Rev. Dudley was advertising the building in New York newspapers as a country retreat, describing Cornwall was a “retired, mountainous region” with trout fishing, pine groves, spring water, bracing air, and “walks and drives unsurpassed.”

The Housatonic Valley Institute opened in the building in 1885 as a boarding school for young ladies, providing all the comforts of home. The school placed an increasing emphasis on its college preparatory work during the 1890s, but it was short-lived. By 1895, it was a school for boys and young men.

Advertisement for Cornwall’s Alger Institute, 1865.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

Litchfield Female Academy

Friction illustrated, in Mary Swift’s Natural Philosophy, Volume II, 1848.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)
Mary Swift was a teacher and principal at the Litchfield Female Seminary. If you look closely, you’ll see a girl next to the steps of the building, carefully sprinkling sand or ashes on the ice, while the less prudent boy slips and falls.

The first school for girls was established in Philadelphia in 1787. Five years later, Sarah Pierce started the Litchfield Female Academy, in Litchfield, attracting students from as far away as Canada. While traditional education for girls was limited primarily to reading, writing, and needlework, the curriculum at the Litchfield Female Academy included logic, rhetoric, chemistry, physics, botany, and mathematics.

At least a dozen Cornwall girls attended the Litchfield Female Academy, setting themselves apart from other girls their age.

Cornwall Students of the Litchfield Female Academy:

Sarah Parkhill Andrews
Harriet Burnham
Mary Ann Burnham
Catharine Melissa Gold
Julia Rebecca Gold
Laura Sedgwick Gold
Sally Maria Gold
Lydia Hyde
Harriet Pratt
Abigail Rogers
Eliza Wilson Rogers
Rhoda Rogers

Map created at the Litchfield Female Academy by Harriet Pratt, c. 1812
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

It was ever the object of Miss Pierce to fit those intrusted to her care for usefulness to themselves and others—to teach them the work of education was not finished in the schoolroom—that they were then laying a foundation on which to improve during their lives.  …the result we see in some of the most highly informed, elegant women of our country, filling the duties, and adorning their stations as wives, mothers, and Christians

~ Letter written by a former student of the Litchfield Female Academy, dated January 6th, 1834,
published in American Ladies’ Magazine, June 1834