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Washington County Seminary for Women 

or Washington County Female Seminary

Submitted by Patty Harris; Typed by Volunteer Terry Cook < TCook79370 AT >



The Washington Female Seminary was founded in 1836 with forty students "providing not just a finishing education for young women of good Christian standing but a rigorous, classical curriculum.".

Focus on Washington County, Volume 1: A Report of 50 Historical Articles Which Appeared On The Focus Page of the Observer Reporter, (prepared by) By Harriet Branton, pp. pp. 35-36, Education For Girls:

Page 35

Education for Girls

Washington Seminary

One of the primary interests of the early settlers in western Pennsylvania was, as we have already noted, the establishment of preparatory schools and colleges. The education of young men for the ministry, medicine, and teaching was most important. While the education of girls above the elementary level did not receive immediate attention, it is to the everlasting credit of Washington's most influential men that they were among the first in the region to recognize the need for schools of higher learning for their daughters. The old colonial attitude that girls needed no education beyond elementary competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic was on the way out by the beginning of the 1st century. Catherine Beecher, Mary Lyon, and Emma Willard were among the pioneers in the establishment of secondary schools for women in the eighteen twenties and thirties. And in Washington, far-sighted men like Alexander Reed and Francis J. LeMoyne were giving the matter of female education their personal attention.

During the month of November, 1835, a number of prominent men met at the home of Congressman T. M. T. McKennan to discuss the organization of a school for girls. The group also included Dr. David Elliot, Dr. David McConaughy, Thomas Morgan, John H Ewing, Dr. Robert R. Reed and many others. They agreed to set up a school for girls and undertook their task with dispatch. The method of financing was simple: shares of stock were sold at $50.00 each. More then $4,000 was quickly raised; this sum was used to purchase a site and erect a building. Pending construction of the school, classes met in the Masonic Hall. Mrs. Francis Biddle was engaged as principal and the Washington Female Seminary was in business. The first session began with 40 pupils on April 21, 1836.

Public examinations of each class, by trustees as well as teachers, were the custom of the day, and the first were held on October 8, 1836. The young ladies insisted that they were nervous and frightened, but they exhibited such knowledge and industry that the trustees and audience were much impressed. The course of study included...

B&W Photo: Training for little women Training for little women

grammar, ancient and modern geography, mental and natural philosophy, history, arithmetic, astronomy, and evidence of Christianity.

The school was chartered by the Pennsylvania Legislature in April, 1836. By that time, the main part of the building had been completes and boarders were in residence. Yearly rate for tuition were $10.00 for primary, $15.00 for junior, and $21.00 for senior students. The charge for board was $1.75 per week.

While students were industrious and happy and the school appeared to grow, it became apparent that Mrs. Biddle was not quite the person for the job. After four years as principal, she resigned, and the board selected Miss Sarah R. Foster, a former student and a friend of Emma Willard, as the new principal. The board chose well; the new principal was to serve for 34 years and under her expert guidance the seminary soon became one of the most famous schools for girls in the region. She was a born administrator, possessed of uncommon tact and energy. In no time at all she and her school began to exercise a great influence upon the entire community.

One of the more interesting events of Miss Foster's early administration occurred in 1843. important travelers were forever stopping off in Washington during these years - the heyday of the National Road. One of these visitors was a Congressman form Massachusetts, the former President, John Quincy Adams, then 76 years old. Mr. Adams visited Washington in November, 1843, and one of his stops was at the seminary. The reporter who covered the event recorded a curious exchange of remarks between the principal and the former President. In those days, ladies rarely made speeches in public, but the capable Miss Foster became one of the first exceptions. She delivered a brief but gracious public welcome to her guest. The startled Adams replied in his most courtly and gallant fashion. Admitting that this was the first occasion in which a lady had addressed him personally in public, he allowed that he was quite touched by the unexpected honor. So pleased was he at his reception that he promised his best prayers for the success and prosperity of the seminary and all other schools like it.

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Page 36

The good wishes and prayers of Adams were not in vain. The school flourished and prospered; classes grew in size as Miss Foster recruited talented and capable faculty. By 1845 the curriculum had been expanded to include geology, algebra, geometry, political economy, chemistry, botany, rhetoric, logic, mental and moral science, and scripture history. Pupils were assigned to one of these departments, senior, junior and third division, with tuition charges of $14.00, $11.00, and $9.00 respectively per session. The school year was divided into two five-month sessions, from November to March and from May to September. The nerve-wracking public examinations took place in March and September. The fee for board and lodging, and laundry had gone up a bit, to $50.00 per session, with an additional charge for $5.00 for fuel during the winter months.

The hospitable three-story building, which fronted on Maiden Street, had 40 rooms. The students' rooms were furnished , and the girls were expected to keep them neat and tidy. The furnishings would be regarded as decidedly chilly and austere by today's standards. Carpets could be found only in the parlors and in the teachers' quarters; no pictures adorned the walls, and there was no central heating. Warmth was provided by little coal or wood fires in each room. There was as yet no gas, electricity, or running water. Light was provided by dip tallow candles. Beds were equipped with two mattresses, a straw one for summer and a feather one for winter. Pupils took turns serving as "monitress," and were responsible for visiting the dormitory room during study hours to make sure that students were in their rooms if they were supposed to be in, or out if they were supposed to be out. Demerits were given for infractions. Food was abundant and apparently good. While life was rugged, letters written by students of the period attested that they found it enjoyable.

The school survived two disasters during Miss Foster's first decade. In 1848 fire destroyed a newly-constructed wing of the building, and the emergency created quite a sensation. When the bell in the courthouse tower sounded the alarm, Court was hastily adjourned to permit judges, juries, attorneys, and citizens to rush to the scene. Three fire companies and a bucket brigade of women, children, and school girls all joined in the effort to douse the flames. When the fire was out, the young ladies were placed with families in town, care being taken by the principal to "remove them as far as possible from the temptation of the presence of the masculine element."

Another catastrophe occurred in 1850 when an epidemic of scarlet fever forced the school to close briefly. Unfortunately several pupils died. Another trying time was the Civil War period. However, the school survived these crises with such success that a reunion in honor of the principal's first quarter century of service was held in June, 1866. By this time it was clear that not only was the Washington Seminary firmly established, but also that the principal of higher education of women was here to stay. Farsighted alumnae looked forward to the time when girls would be as liberally educated as boys, and when all women who whisked to do so would be able to prepare for any career they desired.

Thus did the seminary finish its first three decades of service to the Washington community. It had more then lived up to the hopes of its founders, and would go on about the business of educating young women for the next eighty years.

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