Scenes of Learning: Households and Clubs
“And the Club…was the best School of Philosophy, Morals & Politics that then existed in the Province.…” — Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
uch learning in early Pennsylvania did not take place in formal school settings at all, but rather in homes and other gathering places like clubs. Through domestic and informal social networks, Pennsylvanians, both elite and “middling,” developed sophisticated means of self-education.
Perhaps the most famous example of a self-improvement club is Franklin’s “Junto,” a voluntary association consisting mainly of tradesmen who met regularly to discuss politics, philosophy, and civic matters. The group first met in 1727, and in this rarely-seen manuscript from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Franklin records the “Standing Queries,” or regular questions, which members would ask each other at meetings, including:
The manuscript is open here to a page of those queries and to the beginning of Franklin’s essay concerning “the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” which he drafted for delivery to the Junto. Also in this manuscript and shown above is Franklin’s mocking poem on the “musty morals taught in schools,” which appears to praise female teachers.
While Franklin and his male friends debated in the Junto, some young men from elite Quaker families gathered at a “Batchelor’s Hall” in Kensington, then outside the city limits. Although older Quakers feared that the club was simply a gaming and pleasure house, George Webb, author of a poem about the hall, assured his audience that it was intended “to mend the heart and cultivate the mind.”
he home was a vital space for learning, particularly for young women. The wealthy Quaker James Logan, a scholar and book collector, taught his daughters at home; to aid in their education, he prepared a translation of the Latin author Cato’s moral sayings for them, shown here in Franklin’s printing. Elizabeth Graeme, one of the most well known poets and translators in colonial America, was at the center of a literary and social circle in her family home at Graeme Park. The group included her sisters, William Smith, Francis Hopkinson, and Franklin’s son William. The death of Graeme’s sister Jane when Graeme was 25 inspired her to compose a powerful elegy addressed to her surviving sister Ann. Poems like this one often circulated in manuscript within these close-knit communities.
Some masters and mistresses may have taken time to instruct servants and apprentices at home and promote their literacy with gifts like the popular A Present for an Apprentice, shown here in an English edition (it was reprinted by Franklin in 1749). The book lays out rules of proper conduct for many social situations. In some cases, homes could be sites of radical pedagogy. When his plan to educate black children was frowned upon by the Quaker school Overseers, Anthony Benezet taught in his house on Chestnut Street for nearly two decades.
n display here is a book aimed at improving the spiritual and moral behavior of children, printed by Franklin for use in homes. Written, according to its preface, by a woman close to the English Dissenter Philip Doddridge, The Friendly Instructor consists of brief dialogues between boys and girls ten to twelve years of age. They discuss serious topics such as proper deportment in church, how to pray with true conviction, and how to cope with the death of a sibling. Before the recent acquisition of this book by the University of Pennsylvania Library, no copy of Franklin’s printing of The Friendly Instructor was thought to have survived.
Franklin’s edition of a popular learning manual by George Fisher, which he modified for a colonial audience and called The American Instructor, contains examples of handwriting samples, models of letters, mathematical exercises, geographical lessons, and accounting rules. Subtitled a “young man’s best companion,” the book was marketed to young men with little or no school training who wished to better themselves socially and financially.