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An Old New York School

 By Eveline Warner Brainerd
 
 
 
It was in midsummer of 1816 that a young and, if her middle age told truly of her youth, a beautiful English woman opened a little school in what was then the upper part of the city of New York. Some twenty years before, there had come to seek their fortune in the growing town on Manhattan Island, a sturdy Kentish family named Boorman.

Active citizens of their new home they proved, and two of the children, Esther and James, we know had more than common weight and influence. Early in life Esther Boorman Smith found herself with two little daughters to support, and with few enough occupations to choose from. Not even women teachers were needed as they are today, for the public free school was still an experiment and but two existed in the city. Small private schools there were a-plenty, for the most part short-lived ventures, and though often carried on by women, most of the instructors were men.

 Indeed, in this very year was opened a most promising school under the patronage of Drs. Gardiner Spring and J.B. Romeyne and George Griffin, Esq., two of the most influential clergymen and one of the most noted lawyers of the time. However, 1816 was a good year in the new land, and so there appeared in the "Evening Post" for July 11 the following advertisement: "Mrs. E. Smith's establishment for the board and tuition of young ladies, No. 3 Hudson Square, is now in readiness for the reception of pupils as boarders or day boarders. The different branches of education by the most approved masters. Further information may be had on application to Mrs. S., and those to whom she is unknown are respectfully referred to the following gentlemen: the Rev. Dr. Mason, Samuel Boyd, Esq., D. J.H. Rogers, and Peter Radcliff, Esq."

Esther Smith is described in later years as not only a very beautiful woman, but of great charm of manner, of marvelous patience, and without thought of self. A lovable personality this, which well explains the devotion she won from her own family. But she must have had as well, in those early days, qualities that made for business success. Backed and encouraged as she always was by her brother, James Boorman, she had evidently her share of the canny foresight and determination that soon made this young man one of the powerful merchants of the town. One recognize his unerring and daring real estate sense in the location of the little school near the new church. St. John-in-the-fields, as it was fittingly named. It is described as a "missionary enterprise, the church set on the outskirts of civilization opposite a dreary marsh, covered with brambles and bulrushes and tenanted with frogs and water-snakes." The tract was part of the Anneke Jans farm, and whether a missionary enterprise or not, Mrs. Smith was quite right in believing that Trinity Corporation knew, as usual what it was doing with its property.

 Nevertheless, by the early twenties this had become one of the most select and delightful regions of the town. The stately church looked down on stately homes, and the marsh and the frogs were of the past. General Schuyler, John Ericsson, Dr. Mason, and the family of Alexander Hamilton, were among those who dwelt in the broad Flemish brick houses with their brown stone porticos and fine iron railings and wrens, bluebirds and orioles, built undisturbed, and where old Cisco the negro gardener puttered peacefully among his trees and flowers.

Although the first month brought but one pupil, gradually came more, and it is curious to note, by means of the advertising columns, the rise and disappearance of school after school, while that of "Mrs. E. Smith" persists, seemingly with so few vicissitudes that not only does she never deign in her notices to explain what is taught or how, or at what prices, but she now and then serenely omits the address, sure that every one knows where to find her "establishment for young ladies." One almost wishes she had been a little less successful, or a little less dignified, whichever it were.

We could have gleaned much knowledge had she been as communicative as Miss Eliza Woffendale, who for years announced her "pleasure in instructing young lady boarders" at forty dollars per quarter; or as Miss Oran, of whose writing master, Mr. Dolbeare, "a beautiful hand may be acquired in one quarter"; or as those trustees of the Female High School, that capstone of feminine education, who offered "English, French, composition, rhetoric, penmanship, arithmetic, algebra, and the other branches of mathematics bookkeeping if required, ancient and modern history, natural, experimental and moral philosophy, plain, fine, and ornamental needlework," at six dollars a quarter without French, and fourteen with.

Despite the reserve of the Smith advertisements, from these contemporary schools and from our knowledge of the city of those days one may guess a little of the life at 3 Hudson Square. Vauxhall, a small edition of the London playground, was near by. Castle Garden, than a similar amusement place, and Poole's Museum were in their heyday. The shops advertised bombazine, juniper berries, and commodities of which we now know hardly the names and must guess the use. The bookstores provided for the schools red and black ink powder and sand and quills, Peter Parley's Arithmetic, Uncle Jacob Abbott's Lessons, Goodrich's History, and Morse's Geography, and announced the arrival from the other side of Jane Porter's newest novel and the opening chapters of "Quentin Durward."

Probably some of Mrs. Smith's boarding pupils came from New Jersey; for, even after the opening of Fulton's first ferry, in 1822, young ladies did not cross the Hudson daily. We know that some came from up the State, for these had to go home before the river closed in the early winter, returning when the ice broke in the spring. Apparently there was a short vacation in April and one in August, schools announcing their opening in May and in September. In the earliest years of the school, before the park was in order, there was skating in Hudson Square, and so near was it to the country that a customary spring treat was a trip to a farm at Broadway and Fourth Street to gather strawberries.

September fifth, 1822, the "Post" has this announcement: "Mrs. Smith's boarding school will be opened on Wednesday, the 18th instant, at the house on the Eighth Avenue, formerly occupied by Mrs. Brute, about a half mile above Love Lane, between the dwellings of Richard Harris, Esq., and the Messrs. Moses. Should the parents of any of her day scholars be desirous of a temporary residence for them that they may enter immediately on their studies, Mrs. Smith will be able to receive a few. Letters addressed to Mrs. Smith through the Post Office will be attended to."

Love Lane was well out in the country by Chelsea Village, running into Eighth Avenue from the Bloomingdale Road, near what is now Twenty-first Street. So this new house was in the Thirties, then open country, with fields sloping down to the river. Probably this move was on account of the yellow fever epidemic, so severe that season as to force the shutting off of a portion of the city to the south of Hudson Square.

In 1834 Mrs. Smith reopened her school "at the corner of Beach and Varick Streets, say 23 Varick Street." This odd indecision as to the number was settled before the year's directory was published, for in that Mrs. Smith appears with twenty other of the "principal female seminaries of the city." Only one of these was as far uptown as St. Mark's Place. James Boorman had by this time become one of the notable men of the city. He had been active in founding the University of the City of New York and he was now interested in the improvement of the region where the new college was building at Seventh Street.

The ancient Potter's Field and gallows ground had been turned into Washington Square and a number of wealthy men were building homes about its freshly laid out lawns and walks. Mr. Boorman built the fine old house of light red brick with white trimming, still standing at the eastern corner of Fifth Avenue and the Square, and above two more houses, 1 and 3 Fifth Avenue for his sister's school. In September, 1835, the school opened in this new home, and it was in this year also that there came a piece of rare good fortune not only to Mrs. Smith, to whom it meant years of warm friendship, but to thousands of young women who, in the next thirty years, were to come under the new teacher's strong and wise influence. Lucy Green had been a pupil in the school and before that had studied under Lucretia Bancroft, sister of the historian, and Dorothea L. Dihat pioneer of prison reform, and she shared their qualities of earnestness and high principle. She had, too, the advantage, at that time uncommon for women, of a season of foreign travel.

Cholera had visited the city severely in 1834, and this may have been the "severe contagious illness" which we are told had for a time a serious effect on the prosperity of the school. Certainly the strictest economy was at this time needful before the continued success of the enterprise that had served the city for twenty years was assured. What is doubtless Mrs. Smith's last advertisement appeared in March, 1838. The change of the school year points to the change in town life, in which the summer had become definitely holiday time. It reads: "Mrs. E. Smith, formerly of Hudson Square, deems it essential to announce that she is about to relinquish her school as reported, but that it will be continued under her personal superintendence for a limited number of pupils.

Mrs. Smith has adopted the system of three terms in the year of full three months each, the vacation being from the first of July to the twentieth of September." The following season the notice is from the Misses Lucy M. and Mary R. Green, who, "having taken the establishment for many years conducted by Mrs. E. Smith, first in Hudson Square and since in its present location, will recommence the school at the close of the vacation on Tuesday, Sept. 10th. Miss Lucy M. Green has held responsible situations with Mrs. Smith during the last four years, and it will be the care of the Misses Green substantially to preserve the regulations and course of instruction heretofore observed." Though there be no one left now to tell us of personal knowledge what manner of teacher was the head mistress who ruled the school through its first quarter century, it needs not the statement in William Allen Butler's sketch of Miss Green to assure us that "it numbered among its pupils the daughters of many of the leading men of the city and elsewhere, who valued the moral and religious tone which characterized the life and activities of the school, as well as the thorough instruction which it imparted."

The foundation was ready for the new builder, and she was eminently fitted to her task. The sister, Mary Green, had charge of the younger children, but it is Miss Lucy who lives so vividly in the memory of all who knew her. Strict and severe she was, absolutely just, and with a fund of tenderness hidden beneath her outward manner and a sunny smile that her pupils never forgot. Shallowness and vanity were to her the unforgivable sins, and plain clothing, no jewelry, and simple pleasures figured large in her creed. Quakerlike in dress, wearing always cloth gowns of ankle length, and heelless shoes, her only ornament her beautiful hair, she was a noticeable and impressive figure in those decades of hoop-skirts and furbelows.

Again there had been no mistake in the choice of location. Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue became, James Boorman and his confreres intended they should, the most notable residential section of the town, and the school, in its broad, generous, dignified brick building (for No. 3 was given up and No. 1 enlarged), was for the next thirty years perhaps easily the leading school for girls in the city. It was not so made, however, by any deference to fashion or luxury. Indeed, a simplicity that may bespeak still scant means is in that early requirement that at the call to dinner each young lady should carry her chair from the school to the dining-room, and carry it, moreover, "quietly and in a genteel manner," and in those wash-rooms furnished with long wooden sinks, white crockery bowls, and large tin dippers.

To quote again from Mr. Butler, "It was wholly foreign to the purpose of Miss Green to give the character or repute of a fashionable school to the institution...Her aim was rather to mould and train the minds that came under her care by developing the highest sense of duty in the exercise of every faculty...She impressed her own personality upon the scholars, particularly in the direction of the education of the conscience and the strengthening of principle." Rigid though her requirements were, in fact, because of their unyielding independence and high idealism, the repute of the school grew, and for years boarders and day pupils numbered between two and three hundred.

With the highest ideals of the position and the power of woman in the home, Miss Green sought to train for the home, and she trained well and wisely in her generation: indeed, in some ways beyond her generation. Text-book and lecturer did not satisfy her. Her girls were expected to look further and were familiar figures at the New York Society Library, then around the block in University Place, and the Astor Library in Lafayette Place. French, German, Italian, Latin, were taught, and if Greek were omitted, the reading of the Iliad in English was a part of the course in literature. How little she inclined toward easy lessons may be gathered by this extract from the journal of her brother, Andrew H. Green, whose advice and aid counted for much in the school and who was in 1844 teaching a class in American History. He had been planning, he writes, a set of lectures "on the constitution and jurisprudence of our country, making them rather general and simple. To do this philosophically I shall have to commence about the beginning of the fourteenth century and take a review of all the nations of Europe at this date, gradually bringing the features in each which bear on the formation of society in this country together till I come to the Declaration of Independence. Then the course will be clear." A large proposition this, and one does not wonder that he seems doubtful of accomplishing it.

Herself an excellent teacher, Miss Green knew how to choose her helpers. Many came from the Union Theological Seminary, thus keeping the tradition of the school that had always been affiliated with the Presbyterian and Dutch elements in the city. Among the men and women noted in their day, or whose names are still familiar, are those of Dr. George B. Cheever, eloquent preacher of the Church of the Puritans and doughty temperance fighter; Henry J. Raymond, founder of the "Times"; Annie Botta, leader of perhaps the only salon New York ever possessed; Felix Foresti, professor at both the University and Columbia; Clarence Cook; Lyman Abbott; and Elihu Root, then a young man fresh from college, whose classes had to be duly chaperoned.

In 1867 came a new teacher, a tall young lady, dark-haired and keen-eyed. Reared among the Orange County hills, she had been educated at the historic Montgomery Academy, which, still doing this country good service, was already a quarter century old when 3 Hudson Square welcomed its lone scholar. The Academy had sent generations of students out into the world before one class gave two remarkable educators to this city, Frances E. Graham, and her youthful rival in mathematics, the beloved Dean Van Amringe of Columbia. Miss Green, in the height of her success, after thirty busy and honored years was ready to retire to the quiet country home in Massachusetts. After watching her new helper two years she made up her mind that here she had found one of the force and the will to carry on her work. The proposition was made to the young teacher, to whom, to quote from Miss Margaret M. Graham, "this honor was so unexpected that she at first declined, but after much thought and persuasion consented and with her sisters endeavored carefully to carry out the ideas of her predecessors."

There must have been a kinship in character between these two, both gentlewomen of the old school, for the words in which they are described by their pupils today are curiously alike. Miss Graham, too, was severe, strict, but absolutely just, of stern principle, of high ideals, while beneath a precise manner lay a warm sympathy and understanding. But the likeness did not extend to appearance. The new head mistress was tall, slender, stately, and though one can hardly imagine her in hoops or frills, her black silk gown, the rustle of which was a warning to every lazy girl within hearing, belonged to her type quite as did Miss Lucy's short cloth frock to hers.

Various staid customs that long persisted under the Misses Graham, must, one fancies, have come down from the old regime. That clearing of the Sunday supper table, when the dishes were passed from hand to hand till gathered in assorted piles at the lower end of the long line, surely came from a simpler day. Improving topics were introduced from time to time at meals, and there has been preserved a classic reply from one gentle and diffident maiden to the question, "What would you do were you thrown on your own resources tomorrow?" "I think I should go and live with Uncle John" was her happy solution. If these pupils were from the "first families," this did not relieve the teachers of care of more than minds and morals, and the youngsters of the primary department were met at the door by a kindly guardian whom they greeted with an "obligatory grin" and turned up nails, before the password, "J'ai dix," Mademoiselle," which meant that they were on time and in order, let them enter. The morning greeting, in which the pupils, rising at their desks, repeated in unison, "Good morning, Miss Graham," and then answered to the roll-call by a memorized verse of the Bible, was an ancient function.

But the Sunday of the boarding pupils, the "young ladies of the family," as they were always called, was the most characteristic feature of the Green and Graham training. The day began with morning prayers at half-past seven, the pupils reading in turn, generally more than once, singing and prayer closing the exercises. After breakfast at eight the pupils attended to their rooms as usual, then came down for the Bible class, which lasted till the first church bell. All walked in procession to the First Presbyterian Church, save the few who stopped on the way at the Church of the Ascension. The few moments between service and dinner were to be employed in the learning of hymns.

At the close of dinner each young woman was expected to give "a thought from the sermon," altogether the most dreaded item in the day's program, calling as it did for a quotation from a sermon that one's teacher also had heard. There followed a brief interval into which could be tucked another verse of one's hymn! The afternoon Bible class closed with the first bell for afternoon service, and on returning from church, if one were wise, one studied one's hymn till evening prayers, which preceded the half-past six supper. After supper, with chairs pushed back from the table, each girl recited the hymn that had safely occupied all the leisure moments of the day. "When this was over," comments an old student, "great peace reigned in our hearts, for with the exception of hymn singing in the ladies' parlor till early bedtime the program for the day was ended."

One would like to know if the school text with which each newcomer in the Green and the Graham schools had to answer to her name, were learned also in Hudson Square. One somehow fancies that a very weary teacher chose it with a grim enjoyment of the second clause. "But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you, for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. Study to be quiet and to do your own business and to work with your own hands as we have commanded you, that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing."

That of which custom was but the index, the spirit and aim of the old school, continued unchanged; and this it was that held so many of the old patrons and brought to the Misses Graham children and grandchildren of the Green and the Smith connections. To Miss Graham as to Miss Green, religion was the main-spring of conduct and the Bible the absolute guide of daily life. Though the boarders had naturally more Bible training than the day scholars, no one was long under the Graham influence without feeling the religious element that entered every department of the school life. A professor who had known Miss Graham well, when asked for some analysis of her as an educator, answered instantly, "She was a character builder," and in these words he precisely described her power. Scholarship, attainment, these were good, but of value only as the result of honest work and as used for high purpose.

No more than their predecessors did the Misses Graham bid for notice by advertising success or numbers, or yielding their views of sound training. Indeed, the advertising sense of both these principals was so ill developed that the daily walks of the "young ladies of the family" were taken in two divisions lest the whole number in line, swinging briskly along the Avenue, should attract too much attention. The naive criticism of one disappointed pupil describes the attitude of the school. "There's no style here," complained the dissatisfied damsel. "The main things thought of are study and courteous behavior."

But if the aims of the teachers were the same, the city had altered almost beyond recognition. When in 1881 the move was made to No. 63, the stately house at Avenue, the lower avenue had passed its prime, and no longer could any one region boast the position it had held. Neither were schools of advanced standing any longer rare, and methods were changing. The preparatory school was taking the place of the school of general training, for the woman's college had come. With it came better trained women teachers and the invasion of women into the field of men was being gently and surely accomplished in the private schools long before the portentous phrase had terrified the timid. Fortunately the invasion was not entirely complete, and there were still lecturers from outside.

 There was Professor Braman, so gentle, so frail, seemingly so old, that from his looks one fancied he might have taught "natural and experimental philosophy" in the schoolroom at Hudson Square. There was still Clarence Cook, most inspiring, most unsystematic of lecturers, who managed to fit several hours with da Vinci's sketchbooks into his course in English literature. Professor Fiske delivered some of his finest lectures from a tiny platform, quite too small for his portly person; and among the later men were Professor Means, Professor Fairchild, Dr. Leighton Williams, and Dr. John D. Quackenbos. But Mr. Tavenor, who taught Miss Green's young ladies to read with expression, and the sarcastic Mr. Wilder, who frightened the timid out of what expression they might naturally have had, and was rewarded by enthusiastic admiration, had long given place to their successors.

Mr. Jackson, who taught a fine, legible Italian hand, as many of his old pupils can testify today, had vanished, and Mr. Dolmage, too, had retired from the arduous business of watching his pupils imitate his neatly written copies. The "English angular" and Mrs. Skinner for a time reigned in their stead, and helped to break the precedent that had come down from the beginning of the century, when, to judge by the advertisements, penmanship was entirely a masculine art. Madame Lancon held Monsieur Aspin's desk, and never French master inspired more awe than did that stern Huguenot lady. French was a specialty under both Miss Green and Miss Graham. It was the rule that all conversation between pupils during the school hours must be in French, and one must one's self report failure to obey, a regulation that caused those of tender conscience anxious searchings of memory before the roll-call. Mademoiselle Giobe in early days, and later the genial Madame English and then Madame Wainwright, the friend of the later generation of students, presided at the daily afternoon conversation hours, from four to five and five to six, when the girls brought their mending and had their stitches supervised along with their accent and their grammar.

The city did not stop changing in 1881. It went on faster and faster. In 1893 the new house at Seventy-second Street and Broadway seemed a permanent location, but in fourteen years business had crept close, making it untenable, and the move was made to the present beautiful home at 42 Riverside Drive. It was in 1910, after forty years of devoted labor, that the Misses Graham retired, giving up the school to Mr. and Mrs. Miner. Mrs. Miner, as Miss White, had been a successful teacher in the school some years before, so that for the third time it was handed on to one who knew and respected its traditions and its aims.
 

 

 
 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: An Old New York School
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

BIBLIOGRAPHY: From My Collection of Books: Valentine's Manual of the City of New York 1917-1918 The Old Colony Press; Henry Collins Brown 1917
 
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