The years following the American Revolution were noted for a national impulse to establish grammar schools for young children, and academies for those considering college. While there were several academies for girls operating in the county, none was more influential or noted than Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy.
Pierce was born in Litchfield in 1767. She never married and instead dedicated her life to educating young women. Pierce’s father died when Sarah was 16, and her brother, John Pierce, Jr., invested in an education for her sister in the hopes that she would become a teacher and support herself. The first classes were held in the dining room of the Pierce home.
By 1798, Pierce had termed her school the Female Academy and began a subscription list to build a structure, which by 1803 was erected at a site on North Street indicated today by a stone marker. Here young women were introduced to Pierce’s revolutionary ideas about education – namely, that girls should be taught what boys were, including geography and history. Pierce went so far as to write her own histories when she couldn’t find suitable texts.
At the turn of the 19th century, so many students were coming in such large numbers – 130 in one year along – that Pierce needed to hire additional teachers. The subjects they were responsible for grew to include chemistry, astronomy, and botany. Academic pursuits were balanced with artistic endeavors including music, dancing, singing, embroidery, drawing, and painting.
Pierce brought in her nephew John Pierce Brace, a graduate of Williams College, as a teacher and her ultimate successor as head of the school. Pierce was noted for his hands-on approach to education, as noted by Mary Wilbor in 1822: “Mr. Brace had all his bugs to school this P.M. He has a great variety, two were from China, which were very handsome, all the rest were of Litchfield descent, and he can trace their pedigree as far back as when Noah entered the ark.”
Pierce’s students boarded with Litchfield families. The town was home to several large boarding houses, including Aunt Bull’s on Prospect Street, and may homes took in students from the Female Academy and the Litchfield Law School (see below). Pierce was also committed to teaching her students proper etiquette, as evidenced by the following rule: “You are expected to rise early, be dressed early, be dressed neatly, and to exercise before breakfast. You are to retire to rest when the family in which you reside request you. You must consider it a breach of politeness to be requested a second time to rise in the morning or retire of an evening.”
Mary Ann Bacon attended Pierce’s academy in 1802, and boarded with the Andrew Adams family on North Street. Her diary entry for June 14th, 1802 provides an insight into a typical student experience:
Arose about half past five, took a walk with Miss Adams to Mr. Smith’s to speak for an embroidering frame. After breakfast went to school. I heard the Ladies read history, studied a Geography lesson and recited it. In the afternoon I drew read and spelt. After my return home my employment was writing and studying I spent the evening with Mrs. Adams and retired to rest about half past nine o’Clock.
Over 3,000 young women – and about 120 young men – were educated at Pierce’s school before it closed in 1833. Their intellectual, social, and artistic abilities helped make Litchfield one of early 19th century America’s most cosmopolitan towns.