Friday, May 27, 2016

Webbs, Morgans, Delords, and Halls: The Family Story of a Sampler

Lavinia Morgan’s sampler
In my earlier post on samplers, I noted that it was often difficult to uncover much information about the lives of the girls and young women who made these pieces. Most women left little mark on the official historical record. However, if a woman has a connection to a “notable” person or family, that makes it more likely that something about her will be preserved. That turns out to be the case for Lavinia Morgan, whose sampler, stitched in 1806 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is in the Alice’s collection.

Lavinia Morgan (1798-1874) was the first cousin of Frances Webb Hall, daughter of Henry Livingston Webb and Frances Delord, and the last member of the Delord family to live in the Kent-Delord House in Plattsburgh. Lavinia’s mother, Sarah Webb Morgan, was Henry Webb’s sister. Sarah and Henry were two of the ten children of Joseph Webb, Jr., and Abigail Chester Webb, prominent and well-to-do citizens of Hartford, Connecticut. The Webb home (built in 1752 by Joseph Webb, Sr.) was known as “Hospitality Hall,” and on one memorable occasion hosted George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, who met there to plan the Yorktown campaign in 1781. (The house later became one of the sites in Wallace Nutting’s “Chain of Colonial Picture Houses,” and is now run as a museum by the Colonial Dames of America.)

Bowl from the Elias Morgan dinner service, now in
the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sally Webb (1775-1805) married Elias Morgan (1770-1812) in 1796. This was Morgan’s third attempt at marriage; his previous two wives (who also happened to be sisters) had both died within a year of their weddings. Sally and Elias had five children, of whom three—Lavinia, Mary Ann, and Henry—survived to adulthood. Although we don’t know much about Lavinia’s childhood, it seems safe to assume that she enjoyed the advantages of growing up in a wealthy and well-connected family. Elias Morgan was a merchant, and evidence of his success can be found in the large set of Chinese export porcelain dinnerware featuring the family coat of arms that he had made ca. 1785-90. A 19th-century family history noted that Lavinia and Mary Ann were still using the set; a number of pieces are now in museum collections and occasionally turn up at auctions.

Photo of the Elias Morgan house, ca. 1900
Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society
A photograph of a building identified as the “Elias Morgan House” in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society is another hint at the family’s wealth. Although it isn’t clear whether Elias Morgan actually lived in this house or just built it, the large, fashionable home suggests prosperity and refinement.

Lavinia lost both of her parents when she was quite young—her mother died when she was about 8 years old, right around the time when she was making her sampler, and her father seven years later. It is likely that her Webb aunts and uncles then became her guardians. Elizabeth, Frances, and Amelia Webb never married, and they would have been the obvious choices to look out for their teenaged niece. Lavinia, too, would remain unmarried, and when young Frances Delord Webb came to live with her aunts after Henry’s death, Lavinia was living with them as well. Although Lavinia and Frances were first cousins, Lavinia was so much older that she was probably more like another aunt to Fanny.

Check for $89.50 paid to Lavinia Morgan from
the bequest of Henry L. Webb
A woman who did not marry often found herself in a precarious position in an era when there were few economic opportunities for women. Fortunately for Lavinia, her family’s wealth assured that she would be able to enjoy some financial independence, although she always lived with either her aunts or her married sister. In addition to whatever money she inherited from her parents, her Webb relatives made sure she was provided for. Both Henry Webb and Frances Webb made wills in the 1840s that included bequests providing Lavinia with a regular income. Aunt Frances’s will, made shortly before her death in 1844, left the three Morgan siblings with $1000 each to be invested on their behalf. Henry Webb, making his will in 1845, left $500 to Lavinia, and instructed his executors to make investments that would provide her with an income of $200 per year for the rest of her life. (As a point of comparison, a woman working in one of the Lowell mills at that time made about $1.75 per week.)

Abigail Chester Webb, grandmother of
Lavinia Morgan and Fanny Webb Hall
Both of these wills are part of the Kent-Delord Collection held at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library. The collection also includes letters written from Lavinia Morgan to her Uncle Henry, checks and other financial documents related to the money left to her by Henry Webb, and documents connected with Lavinia’s estate at the time of her death in 1874. Thanks to Lavinia’s connection with the Delord/Webb/Hall family, we have these items to fill out the story behind the sampler. Exactly how the sampler ended up at the Alice T. Miner Museum is not known. We can guess that Lavinia bequeathed the sampler to her cousin Fanny Webb Hall, and that after Fanny’s death in 1913 her personal belongings were scattered. Documents in the museum archives suggest that Fanny’s sister-in-law, Frances Hall Sargent, donated a number of Webb family items to Alice, which may have included the sampler. 

Lavinia’s sampler is currently on loan to the Kent-Delord House, where you can see it along with many other artifacts from the Delord, Webb, and Hall families. The Kent-Delord House will be kicking off its season with Museum Weekend, June 4 and 5, and will be offering guided tours all summer long, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

From Academy to Seminary to College: Women’s Education in the 19th Century

In my last post, I noted that the practice of making samplers in American schools started to die out in the 1830s, in part because of changes in attitudes toward female education. By that time, activists like Catharine Beecher, Zilpah Grant, Emma Willard, and Mary Lyon had established schools in the northeastern US that aimed to give girls an education equivalent to that available to boys. These female seminaries were also intended to train women as teachers during a period when America’s public school system was rapidly expanding. 

A book in the Alice’s collection provides a window into this pivotal moment. William Woodbridge and Emma Willard’s Universal Geography was co-authored by one of the pioneers of women’s education, and this particular copy was owned by a young lady who would later attend a pioneering institution for women’s higher education. 

Emma Hart was born in 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut to a farming family. When she was only twenty years old, she became the principal of Middlebury Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, where she also met her husband John Willard. She gave up teaching after her marriage, but a few years later, with the family in difficult financial circumstances, she opened her own school with a more rigorous curriculum than the one offered at the Seminary.
Emma Hart Willard 

Willard’s experiences at Middlebury led her to become more active in the movement for female education, and in 1819 she published An Address to the Public...Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. While nominally addressed to the members of the New York State legislature, it was really meant for a wide audience. In it, Willard laid out what she thought were the defects in the current system of female education and made an argument for publicly-supported female seminaries. 

Although the legislature rejected her proposal, the Willards moved to New York, first to Waterford and then to Troy, where the Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821. Although she was very careful not to refer to her school as a college, Willard clearly modeled it on those elite male institutions. At Troy, girls could learn mathematics, philosophy, and science, in addition to the subjects that were traditionally thought appropriate for women (reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps a little history and French). Willard felt that the “ornamental” branches of drawing, music, and dancing could be part of a seminary curriculum, but needlework, other than the purely useful sort, she regarded as “a waste of time.”

It's literally a Temple.
John Willard died in 1825, and thereafter Emma Willard depended upon the income from the school and her writing to support herself and her son, John Hart Willard. She was the author of a number of textbooks which were widely used in American schools, and she introduced some truly novel ways of graphically representing knowledge, such as the “Temple of Time” to depict history. The Universal Geography was really two texts packaged together—William Woodbridge’s A System of Universal Geography (which covered the modern world) and Willard’s Ancient Geography. First published in 1824, it went through at least ten editions and was still being used into the 1850s.

The copy of Universal Geography in the Alice’s collection belonged to Margaret Tufts of New Haven, Connecticut. Margaret was born in 1815, the daughter of Matthias and Matilda Tufts. Matthias Tufts was a ship carpenter and a member of the New Haven School Society (essentially the board for the city’s public schools), which suggests that he had an interest in the subject of education. We don’t know where Margaret was a student in 1833, when she acquired this textbook—she could have attended one of the half a dozen young ladies’ academies in New Haven, or been a boarding pupil at a school like Troy Female Seminary. But wherever it was, her education did not end there. In 1837, she became one of the first students at a new institution that was just opening in Massachusetts, the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Mary Lyon
Mount Holyoke’s founder, Mary Lyon (1797-1849), came from a similar background to Emma Willard. Also from a New England farming family, she became a teacher as a young woman and then helped to run two female academies started by Zilpah Grant. When it came time to open her own school, she was determined to offer the best education available to women at the time. Entrance requirements were rigorous and aimed to admit “young ladies of an adult age, and mature character.” Mount Holyoke’s curriculum was modeled upon—and indeed was nearly identical to—that of nearby Amherst College. At both institutions, students were required to take courses in ancient history, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geography, geology, logic, philosophy (mental, moral, and natural), political economy, and rhetoric. Lyon also encouraged students to take Latin, classical languages and literature being the key subject that had always distinguished male education from female learning.

Despite the similarities between Amherst and Mount Holyoke, one was a college while the other was a seminary. There was simply too much resistance to the idea of admitting women to the power and prestige associated with a college education. As one historian has written, “The college world was a fraternity all its own, a time-hallowed preserve of masculine identity, masculine knowledge, masculine privilege, and masculine society, where the elite white men who regarded leadership and public power as their birthright were trained. To either admit women to that fraternity or countenance their acquiring too many of its trappings was more than undesirable; it was inconceivable.”

Over the next few decades, some of that resistance would be chipped away, and true colleges for women, offering bachelor’s degrees, would be founded. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary would become a college in 1888. However, neither Mary Lyon nor Margaret Tufts lived to see that happen. Margaret became a teacher in New Haven after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1840. In 1842, she married Sherman Booth, a noted abolitionist, and in 1848 they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so he could establish the abolitionist newspaper that came to be known as the Wisconsin Free Democrat. The Booths had three children who died in infancy, and Margaret herself died in 1849 shortly before her 34th birthday.

Many thanks to my grad school colleague and dear friend Caroline Hasenyager, for patiently answering my questions about early-19th century women’s education, and allowing me to quote from her dissertation, “Peopling the Cloister: Women’s Colleges and the Worlds We’ve Made of Them.”

If you are interested in learning more about the history of women’s education, here are a few good books:

Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1976)

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed., 1993)

Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2006)