The Life of the Institution

Range 2 of the Barnard Collection. Patrons are not typically allowed in the stacks, but Curator Rick Ring very graciously gave me tour.

One stipulation of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium fellowship is that I become involved in the life of the institutions I visit. On Monday, I spent the day at the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford. The Watkinson boasts an incredible collection of rare books, including the library of education reformer Henry Barnard. The Barnard collection alone consists of approximately 7,000 volumes related to education from about 1800 until 1880, and I’m there to see the text books adopted by the Jacksonville Female Academy. Thanks to Christian, the amazing student research assistant, I have a list of those books drawn from a sampling of catalogs over various decades.

On Monday, I focused on books in science, physiology, and U.S. History adopted by the JFA in the 1850s and 1860s. These included:

  • wp-1453818412203.jpgDenison Olmstead, Olmstead’s Rudiments of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, Designed for the Younger Classes in Academies and for Common Schools, New York: Collins & Brother, 1859.
  • Calvin Cutter, Anatomy and Physiology: Designed for Academies and Families, Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey and Co., 1847.
  • W.S.W. Ruschenberger, Elements of Anatomy and Physiology, Prepared for the use of Schools and Colleges, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.
  • Emma Willard, Abridged History of the United States, New York: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1853.
  • Charles A. Goodrich, A History of the United States of America on a Plan Adapted to the Capacity of Youth, Boston: Jenks, Hickling, and Swan, 1853.

My first observation is that for the most part, these books were not college-level books. When possible, Christian noted in the database the classes to which these books were assigned, but I was still taken aback by the suggestions for scientific observations in Olmstead’s Rudiments of Natural Philosophy because he emphasizes how simple laboratories can be constructed using household items, including “toys sold at toy shops.” Thermometers, compasses, and magnets were perhaps the most sophisticated equipment on his list. We know the JFA obtained more advanced equipment in the 1860s, so the adoption of this book doesn’t necessarily indicate that the administrators of the JFA believed women incapable of scientific study. Rather, I believe this type of book prepared them to serve as teachers in cash-strapped rural schools. In 1827, Catherine Beecher noted in the Prospectus for the Hartford Female Academy that women’s schools were expected to provide lessons on “the first principles of mechanics, the balance of fluids, the complicated motion of heavenly bodies, and the varied operations of nature as displayed both in Chemistry and Philosophy,” but they operated at a distinct disadvantage due to a “want of apparatus and facilities for instructing” (5).

However, there was some information that the JFA administration clearly did not want their students to know. Both works on physiology by Cutter and Ruschenberger provided startling detail about the human body (for example, the optics of the eye consume pages upon pages). Cutter in particular is an interesting selection for a women’s school because he discussed at length the evils of corsets. In the picture below, he compared the body shape of a classical Venus with that of a modern woman’s “artificial insect waist.” In 1847, dress reform was considered quite radical. Amelia Bloomer was only beginning to unroll her new fashion line at that point. But discussing corsets was about as intimate as these books got. Most of the illustrations feature somewhat masculine but androgynous etchings of anatomical systems. The photo on the right from Ruschenberger provides a glimpse into the arteries.

Neither of the books even hinted at human reproduction, or even systems of elimination. The digestive system was featured prominently, but not the end result, and I couldn’t find a trace of anything about reproductive organs. When I mentioned this to Curator Rick Ring, he came back with a set of books titled, Sammy Tubbs the Boy Doctor and Sponsie the Troublesome Monkey, by E.B. Foote, MD, published in New York by Murray Hill Publishing Co., 1874. This series of five children’s books featured the fictional story of Sammy, the son of former slaves, who moved north to become a servant for a physician. Over the course of the series he grows up learning about the human body. On the cover of the final volume, it states clearly, “For Private Reading,” because this is the volume where Sammy grows up. The books perpetuated many racist stereotypes and sometimes outright wrong information about the human body (for example, a child will grow up to be a murder if his mother visits a slaughter house while pregnant), while also presenting progressive ideas – for example, one of Sammy’s girlfriends is white. There’s even an illustration of their interracial kiss:

But what’s most interesting here are the startling anatomical illustrations. If you look closely at the illustration of female reproductive organs, the page number is 180 1/2. Parents are encouraged to cut these pages out of they believe them too scandalous for young children. With the “1/2” page safeguard, children will never know that their parents removed them.

Needless to say, Sammy Tubbs was not on the reading list at the JFA. No – the women there, at least according to their textbooks, remained entirely ignorant of human reproduction. Cutter spent some time discussing human genetics, but he primarily focused on a mother’s shortcomings in that arena. For example, when discussing nervous disorders, he wrote:

“When the original eccentricity is on the mother’s side, and she is gifted with much force of character, the evil extends more widely among the children, than when it is on the father’s side” (232).

The same was true for physical disabilities as well, and Cutter advised women to choose their mates wisely because:

If two persons, each naturally of excitable and delicate nervous temperament, choose to unite for life, they have themselves to blame for the concentrated influence of similar tendencies in destroying the health of their offspring, and subjecting them to all the miseries of nervous disease, madness, or melancholy.


wp-1453817963177.jpgMonday was a productive day, but it was capped off with an invitation to observe Professor Jack Dougherty’s class, Educ 300 – Education Reform: Past and Present (click on the link to see the syllabus). Professor Dougherty brought his class to the Watkinson on the very first day for a History Lab, wherein students looked at 19th century textbooks and wrote down their observations about the ideology of authors and common school advocates, the ways in which books socialized young people and promoted specific virtues, how they viewed the United States and other nations. Professor Dougherty asked specifically: How do the books portray human nature? What traits are seen a predetermined? and What social roles are accepted as normal? Furthermore, the students had to think about what the textbooks reveal about everyday life inside 19th century school. For example, one student observed that the geography book she held was in question an answer format. Professor Dougherty wondered if perhaps this was a book designed not only to promote interaction between students and teachers, but to help those teachers without formal training who (secretly) learned right along with their students.

The students of Educ 300 made many keen observations about notions of race and gender, and the stereotypes Americans held about the people of other nations. They are a sharp bunch and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see them in action. I was also excited to see faculty using the Watkinson as a resource. Curator Rick Ring mentioned that over the course of the semester, they host 25-30 such classes and even hold their own classes in the library itself. This is exactly what we want to do at IC, so having the chance to see it done, and done extremely well, was a real treat. A big thanks to Professor Dougherty and Rick Ring for the invitation. I suppose this is what the NERFC had in mind when they said the fellows should get involved with the life of the institution.

I’m back at the Connecticut Historical Society for the rest of the week, but am chomping at the bit to get back to the Watkinson next week. Until then…


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