Scenes of Learning: Quaker and Girls' Schools
“From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all
the little Money that came into my Hands was
ever laid out in Books.…” — Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
n his Autobiography, Franklin described the books
he had read as a young man which he considered
influential for his own development. Two examples
(although not Franklin’s own copies) are shown here (nos. 87-88).
"From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was
ever laid out in Books. Pleas’d with the Pilgrim’s Progress, my first Collection was of John Bunyan’s Works, in separate little volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton’s Historical Collections; they were small Chapmen’s Books and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. —My father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity, most of which I read…. Plutarch’s Lives there was, in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great Advantage. There was also a book of Defoe’s called an Essay on Projects and another of Dr Mather’s call’d Essays to do Good, which perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life."
ike the Academy of Philadelphia, the “Public
School” run by Philadelphia Quakers at Fourth
Street near Chestnut was divided into Latin, English,
and Mathematical “schools,” each a distinct division
with separate teachers and curricula. A 1764 list of
books from the English school suggests the range
of readings given to students. Franklin
had recommended a similar group of books in his
Idea of the English School. Included are works by
William Penn and other Quakers, geography and
mathematics texts, and some poetry and history.
One noteworthy item is John Woolman’s radical
plea against “Keeping Negroes,” which suggests
that debates over slaveholding may have found their way into the classroom.
wo book lists provide evidence of young
women’s reading in early Philadelphia schools.
A school for girls was founded by the Quaker
Anthony Benezet in 1754 and taken over by Ann
Thornton one year later, at which point Benezet
delivered a group of books to her. Thornton
taught only for a short period, after which Benezet
returned. Daughters of many prominent Quaker families attended this school and were exposed to religious writings, travel narratives, and modern literature by both male and female authors, including Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s popular History of Joseph.
While there is no surviving record of books used
in the Charity School for girls run by the Academy
and College of Philadelphia, book lists from
other charity schools do exist. Shown here is one
from the Aimwell School, founded and run by
Quaker women in 1796 (no. 93). The list, which is
accompanied by precise borrowing rules, suggests
that these schoolgirls had access to a variety of
books, from simple illustrated tales for beginning readers to novels like Robinson Crusoe.