Guest blog by Kennedy Pope, Upstate Institute Summer Field School Fellow at OCHS
“The utmost attention is paid to the moral culture of the heart and the formation of graceful and elegant manners.” – Catalogue of the School 1837-38
The Utica Female Academy opened in 1837, offering courses such as geography, bookkeeping, and natural philosophy. There were many rules under Principal Miss Jane Kelly. Among the “not allowed,” were expensive clothing and receiving calls from men unless they were certain family friends or relatives. However, the girls didn’t lack in companionship, as many had a suspiciously large number of male “cousins.” The school burned down in March 1865, and didn’t reopen until 1871 due to funding difficulties.
By 1875, times were changing. The school became Mrs. Piatt’s Female Seminary, with a new headmaster in charge. Rules were less restricting and the motto “Als Ikh Kan” was adopted (Dutch for “the best I can.”) With no graduation exercises or exams, women were instead encouraged to keep learning throughout their lives. Still, many of the old traditions stayed to keep their reputation, including a daily curtseying ceremony.
Mrs. Piatt personified this blurring line between the traditional and modern. She wore tailored clothes with a “mannish collar and tie,” but made sure her pupils didn’t do the same. At night, she wore soft silks and pearls to demonstrate proper, ladylike apparel.
These images are from dorm rooms at the “Fem Sem,” and shed light on the everyday lives of the students. They’re like the photos in I Spy books, as these girls clearly didn’t hold back when it came to packing for school.
All the girls have either a guitar or banjo, as music was a major part of the curriculum.
Physical exercise requirements included walking and lawn tennis, evidenced by the racquets on their walls.
Every surface is covered in family photos, the only way they had to connect with their families, as contact between the two was highly discouraged.
All of the girls have paper fans hanging up, a somewhat luxurious object showing they were relatively well off, able to afford the school and other niceties.
These images are packed with really interesting things, so look closely and see what you can find!
(Interior photos PHO-UT-PSC.1.3-.7)