Revolutionary Visions: From Country to City
“I address myself to all the friends of youth…” — Benjamin Franklin as “The Left Hand,” 1785
riginally conceived by Owen Biddle in the early 1790s as a boarding school modeled after the Ackworth School run by English Quakers, the Westtown School opened in 1799 to Quaker boys and girls. Biddle and other Quakers worried about the lack of Quaker instruction at the religiously diverse Friends Academy on Fourth Street, and Westtown thus represents their attempt to reinforce Quaker values for a younger generation. The school’s “Information for Parents,” shown here, suggests that rules were strict, mandating plain clothing and the absence of outside books. But by all accounts, the school was a remarkable success. Students arose at five-thirty for breakfast; classes began at seven and extended through five in the afternoon, with extended breaks for exercise and for gardening on the grounds. Science was emphasized, and although drawing was not a part of the formal curriculum, numerous early student drawings of the school building have survived, like the one on display. Student testimonies of life at Westtown also survive in letters home. One of the first students, Lydia Fisher, described her long days to her mother with pleasure, but she also requested that her mother send “some letter Paper, and wafers, also a few Cakes.”
Westtown samplers, like that of Rachel Ellis on display here, appear simple but are actually highly intricate. Their style was often imitated in the region during the nineteenth century. Rachel Ellis was a student at Westtown from 1799 to 1801.
ith the continuing growth of Philadelphia’s population, educational problems familiar to modern school reformers became increasingly visible. Many children in the densely urban, industrial city simply were not able to attend school for financial or practical reasons. In response, Quakers, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians continued or created substantial charity schools for youths. The latter two groups also began Sunday schools for adults, which taught not only religious concepts but also a full spectrum of subjects to adults willing to devote their only day off from work to education. On display here are a ticket admitting students into one of the Quaker schools at no charge and an evocative note (ca. 1807) from a woman named Martha Cather, confessing her economic difficulties and her desire to keep her daughter in the Presbyterian school.
The post-Revolutionary period witnessed an expansion of educational opportunities for African Americans, although it was also a time of increasing segregation. Richard Allen, founder of the Mother Bethel church, and Absalom Jones, founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, both began schools for Philadelphia’s large free black population, supervising day, evening, and Sunday schools in their churches. In 1807 Allen created the ambitious Society of Free People of Color for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent, which sponsored several schools. The Quakers continued to run the school for blacks that Anthony Benezet had begun in 1770, while another group of Quakers formed the Association of Friends for the Free Instruction of Adult Colored Persons in 1789. Arthur Donaldson, also a Quaker, began his own school for blacks, advertised here, around 1810. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Franklin serving as its president, sponsored schools for blacks both in and outside of the city. Abolition Society teachers encouraged students to submit writing samples, which the teachers annotated in order to demonstrate their students’ progress. The samples, which reveal that students in these schools ranged widely in age, may have been used for fundraising.
he document here listing boys at “Dr. Franklin’s Charity School” remains mysterious. The school, which was probably not the charity school at the College of Philadelphia, may instead be a Philadelphia orphans’ school in which Franklin seems to have taken an interest late in his life, but about which little is known.
Franklin’s life itself became the subject of educational readings after his death. Publishers marketed the Autobiography for schools and for young readers. One German edition printed at Ephrata and shown here was apparently used by a young Pennsylvanian to practice handwriting. The Franklin Family Primer contains reading lessons and sayings derived from Franklin’s life and writings. Nineteenth-century educators sought to present that life as model which could teach younger generations the value of hard work and moral rectitude.