By The Virtue of its Citizens: Educating a New Nation at Sarah Pierce’s Academy

The Litchfield Female Academy enrolled more than 3,000 students over a forty-one year period marked by changing social expectations and expanding opportunities in America. The Academy’s earliest students were among the first generation of American women to receive a formal education; its later students were reformers and leaders who worked to improve women’s education and society as a whole. This exhibit will explore the impact of the school on the town of Litchfield and the students who attended, as well as the influence of the graduates on social and educational reform.

On view April 14-November 25, 2018

The Litchfield Female Academy enrolled more than 3,000 students over a forty-one year period marked by changing social expectations and expanding opportunities in America. The Academy’s earliest students were among the first generation of American women to receive a formal education; its later students were reformers and leaders who worked to improve women’s education and society as a whole. Students from fifteen states and territories, Canada, Ireland and the West Indies all traveled to Litchfield to learn from Miss Sarah Pierce. This exhibit will explore the impact of the school on the town of Litchfield and the students who attended, as well as the influence of the graduates on social and educational reform.

Watercolor by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel of Litchfield Female Academy Building, c. 1898

The academic curriculum at the Female Academy reflected Sarah Pierce’s belief that women and men were intellectually equal. Pierce continuously improved and expanded her academic curriculum, offering many subjects rarely available to women, including logic, chemistry, botany and mathematics. At the same time, Pierce experimented with innovative ways to unite the academic and ornamental subjects. Students drew and painted maps and made charts of historical events to reinforce geography and history lessons. They also illustrated poetry, literature, and mythological and biblical readings with elaborate embroideries and detailed watercolor paintings. Botany and natural history lessons were often illustrated with watercolor drawings.

Watercolor Palette

Although primarily interested in a strong academic curriculum, Sarah Pierce knew that teaching the ornamental subjects was critical to the success of her school. In the 18th century, most wealthy parents were willing to invest in a son’s education because it increased his chances of pursuing a profitable career. For young women, advanced educational opportunities were few, and the ability of their families to pay the high cost of an education became a symbol of wealth. The decorative paintings and needleworks made by the girls at female academies were hung in formal parlors as proof of family prosperity. Learning dancing, music, foreign languages, art and other ornamental subjects was also important for those students who wanted to become teachers or start their own academies, as no school for young women would be successful without them.

Sarah Pierce encouraged her students to become involved in benevolent and charitable societies. The Litchfield Female Academy students organized to support local missionary, bible and tract societies and raised money for the training of ministers. Many of the academy alumnae carried on these activities in later life, becoming leaders and ardent members of maternal societies, moral reform movements, and temperance societies. Most of the students went on to private lives devoted to their families. They spread Pierce’s ideals of Christianity, morality, education and character to their family and friends. Two of her students, sisters Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, transmitted these ideals to the nation as a whole by publishing manuals about parenting and housekeeping. The greatest influence Sarah Pierce had on the history of education was through the many young women she trained as teachers. While some of her students returned to teach at the Litchfield Female Academy, others went on to teach or establish schools throughout the nation.

To learn more about the students who attended the Female Academy, visit our online database The Ledger.