Back to School in Worcester – 1850s Style
Fall, September in particular, has long been associated with the beginning of a new school year. With the exception of breaks for holidays, winter and spring vacations, and, of course, the long-anticipated summer vacation, students are expected to be in school for most of the day Monday through Friday. While researching Worcester in the 1850s for my forthcoming novel, Erin’s Children, I learned from the City documents that the experience of attending school in Worcester was once very different.
According to Google, Worcester currently boasts 52 public schools. In the 1851 report of the school committee, twenty-four schools were in existence in Worcester, twelve of them made of brick and twelve of wood. Lots had been purchased on Sycamore and Salem Streets for the building of two more. As the decade continued, more schools were built.
Students attending primary schools were generally between the ages of four and twelve. From there, they moved on to secondary schools. What we now refer to as grades (as in “What grade are you in?” “I’m in fourth grade.”) did not exist. A student, or in 19th century parlance, a “scholar,” progressed from primary to secondary school when they had learned a sufficient amount to do so. Moving on to high school required the passing of examinations.Tuition was charged for attendance at high school.
The time period during which school was in session was also different. There were winter and summer sessions and a fall term. Attendance could be erratic. Scholars did not necessarily attend every term or semester. While education was considered important, planting in the spring in rural areas was more so. We may not think of Worcester as rural, but in the 1850s much of it was. Tatnuck, for example, was mostly agricultural and woodland. If help was needed on the farm, that took precedence over school.
In 1851 S.P. Miller advocated for a longer summer break as the heat produced restlessness and indifference to learning. Parents who weren’t dependent upon their children’s help opposed Miller, preferring a shorter summer vacation suggesting that teachers take their students outside in the hotter weather to study nature.
On the first Monday of December, the Young Men’s Winter School began sessions in the Main Street School House. These were evening classes for those working as apprentices who could not attend school other than during a few months in the winter. In 1852, Nathaniel Eddy, Esq. ran this school. He claimed the students to be respectful and attendance good. The apprentices studied writing, spelling, math, geography, grammar, philosophy, algebra, and bookkeeping.
Not all who were enrolled in evening school were so dedicated, though. It was found that the parents of many of these students thought their kids were at evening school when, in fact, they were at other locations, not necessarily places with the best reputations.
As is probably true for any city in any time period, some schools gained distinction and others a measure of notoriety. The Pleasant Street Secondary School (now Rob Roy Academy) began as an all-girl school, but started admitting boys by 1851. Some of those boys “caused disturbances” and were transferred to Mr. Caleb Metcalf’s School on Thomas Street, where, presumably, their high spirits were better controlled. Or, then again, perhaps not as that school had earned a reputation for truancy and misbehavior.
The Lee Street School had such low attendance that it closed after only ten weeks while the African School in Pine Court had “the best attendance of any school I have visited” according to O.P. Gilbert’s report of 1852.
Then there was the fate of the Quinsigamond Village School which had its roof torn off by a tornado in 1851. What is it with schools named Quinsigamond and tornadoes?
While some high school subjects would be familiar to modern day scholars, many would seem unusual. All of Worcester’s high school students in the 1850s studied reading, composition, and declamation or recitation of poetry. Beyond that, they could choose from a smattering of subjects which included arithmetic, geometry, English grammar and analysis, history, geography, surveying, intellectual philosophy, French, Latin, and Greek.
In 1854 the African School was closed due to low enrollment. All students who had been enrolled in the African School were encouraged to attend other local high schools and were readily admitted. While this was unusual for the time period, it should also be noted that while black and white students attended the same schools, there does not appear to have been much interaction between them. Still, Worcester was ahead of its time by the very fact of integration.
Most immigrant children attended Pine Street School. Pine Street (now Shrewsbury Street) was in a section of Worcester known as “The Meadows” an area heavily populated by Irish Catholic immigrants. A few of the characters in Erin’s Children live in The Meadows in a large tenement-style building called the Arcade. The Arcade was a real building used in this very manner and named for its previous incarnation as the Arcade Malleable Iron Works. The Meadows’ residents were seen by most Worcester citizens as poor, foreign, and “of a peculiar faith.” The students were often indifferent to or suspicious of their teachers. In 1854, Miss Newton, who had taught there since the school’s opening resigned for health reasons. Her assistant, Miss Cutter, also resigned. They were replaced by Miss Doanne and Miss Cross. These two teachers combined firmness with kindness and won the love and respect of their students.
The Worcester City Documents contain the annual reports of only the public school committees for the primary, secondary, and high schools. However, Worcester had its share of institutions of higher learning as well. The Oread Institute was a women’s college founded in 1849 by Eli Thayer and educated some remarkable women. Two of them, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, would go on to found Spelman College named for another Oread graduate, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller.
The Oread Institute was a massive building designed to resemble a castle complete with turrets. (See picture at top of page) It was situated on a 10-acre hill off Main Street, then known as Goat Hill. It closed as a college in 1881, but served as the Worcester Domestic Science and Cooking School from 1898 – 1904. The building fell into disuse and was eventually demolished in the 1930s. Today the site of the Oread Institute is known as Oread Castle Park or simply Castle Park.
I cannot write of Worcester’s schools in the 1850s without a mention of the College of the Holy Cross. Founded in 1843, Holy Cross, a Jesuit liberal arts college, is the oldest Catholic College in New England and one of oldest in the United States. It has become a well-known and revered center of higher learning. But it was almost lost to existence when on July 14, 1852 a fire started on the third floor of Fenwick Hall where the Jesuits and students lived and studied. It spread quickly causing an estimated $40,000 worth of damage ($1.3 million in today’s currency) and the college was not insured. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but the students were sent home the next day with only the clothes on their backs. Nearly everything was lost in the fire.
Though rebuilding would mire the college in horrendous debt, a fundraising campaign began in the fall of 1853 and an architect hired. By October of that year, the school reopened with fourteen students and four Jesuit teachers in the undamaged section. Rebuilding began with funds raised by the Jesuits and through donations. The college was rebuilt and stands today as one of the best Catholic Colleges in the country.