19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Time to Enroll at Ye Old Boarding School

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19th c NG, Week 2By Melissa Rayner

Last week we had a lot of fun figuring out how we would indubitably meet our demises in ye old nineteenth century. This week I want to put forward something just a little less morbid, because it’s hard to keep readers engaged without sending them the occasional infusion of hope.

So I found this image of a Dumbledore doppelganger, and my inner geek got very excited. If you’re anything like me, the Harry Potter series made you daydream not just about being a wizard, but also about attending boarding school. Well, since our time travels are already pretty magical, today I’d like to take you back in time to a nineteenth century boarding school.

Ready? Because here we go!

I’d like to start our journey through time by asking you first to consider what a boarding school might look like to you, how it would operate, what it would cost–the whole shebang. As we go forth, put yourself in the place of both a prospective parent and a young student. Think not only about what you’d enjoy, but also about what you’d want for your progeny.

Now, the first school we’ll be visiting today is an all girls’ school led by the judicious Mrs. Williams. And her mission?


“To cultivate the expanding flowers” that are the women of this generation. Have you ever thought of yourself or your daughter as an expanding flower? Seems a little reaching…

While the sentiment may be odd, the language is beautiful. Perhaps this place has a great literature program. Let’s take a look at the curriculum.


My, it is wordy, isn’t it? Skimming, skimming. “Dormant virtues, sense of decorum and propritey.” Uh-huh. “Principles of piety, morality, benevolence, prudence and economy.” Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Whoa, what’s this part about the main purpose being to domesticate these girls and qualify them for a private life? What ever happened to the staples of Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic?

I don’t think this school is for us.

Next up we have “The Sandwich Collegiate Institute.” Oh, that sounds fantastic! Let’s look at their curriculum straight away. We don’t want to be lured in by flowery language. What we need is the facts.

course of studies

We can major in “social life”? All right, I’m hooked! What’s this going to cost me?

cost of an education

Only 30 bucks!? SOLD!

Oh, but wait a second. Here’s an article that blames boarding school life for severe health decline in its students. They say a young girl, who was previously of good health, returned from school after just a month’s residence, “suffering from general debility, neuralgic pains, vertigo and headache.” They say her daily schedule, which is “positively murderous” is to blame. Here’s what that schedule looks like:


The article goes on to say:

This system of education takes young, robust, romping girls, and transforms them to slow, languid, pale, worthless women. To acquire skill on the piano, a little bad French, and a namby-pamby knowledge of a few of the “English branches,” they sacrifice health, energy, all capacity for the duties of womanhood, and not unfrequently life itself. Our prescription in the case on which these remarks are founded, was, of course, a simple one — to stay at home and abjure boarding-schools.

Are you second-guessing our enrollment? Me too. Why did we even decide to matriculate in the first place?

Oh, right, Harry Potter. Well, maybe we can spare ourselves the experiential knowledge and just read a novel on the matter. I hear “The Boarding-school Girl” is good.

Is this the 19th century's answer to Harry Potter? The Boarding-school Girl: by Mrs. L. C. Tuthill
Is this the 19th century’s answer to Harry Potter? Click to read The Boarding-school Girl: by Mrs. L. C. Tuthill.


  1. Foster, Hannah. The Boarding School; Or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils: Consisting of Information, Instruction, and Advice, Calculated to Improve the Manners, and Form the Character of Young Ladies. Boston: Printed by I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1798. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
  2. Freeman, Frederick, and Charles Whiting Wooster. The Sandwich Collegiate Institute : a boarding school for boys and misses. Boston: Printed by S.N. Dickinson & Co., 1845. Sabin Americana, 1500-1926. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
  3. “The Boarding School Nuisance.” Buffalo Medical Journal 12.3 (1856): 182+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
  4. Tuthill, Louisa Caroline, Crosby, Nichols, and Company, and Metcalf and Company. The Boarding-school Girl: by Mrs. L. C. Tuthill. 8th ed. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1855, c1848. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
  5. “Young Ladies’ Boarding School.” Woman’s Journal 15 June 1872: 191. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.



Melissa for Caricature (2)About the Author

Melissa is obsessed with books, birds, and bonbons. She is a new mom and holds an MA in Applied Sociology. She also writes fiction and skips about the interweb as Emlyn Chand.




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