Student Essays ca. 1850

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve graded thousands of student essays on a variety of topics. In general, college students have a style all their own that is rough (typically due to procrastination), but full of promise. While at the Connecticut Historical Society, I took some time to read essays written by two students, Mary Ellen Norton at Mount Holyoke (1850-1853) and Jennie Fessenden at the Hartford Female Seminary, 1849-1857), to understand something about expectations for student work.

Today’s blog post will mostly be Norton’s and Fessenden’s words so that you can see what I see. As far as I can tell, their essays were written as weekly in-class exercises. Occasionally revised drafts were included with teacher comments on them, but for the most part they were lightly edited or not at all. They wrote on a variety of topics, ranging from works of creative fiction, social commentary, and history. Fessenden is especially interesting because she entered the HFS at the age of 12 and we can track her development throughout her teenage years.

Most striking is how these young women expressed expectations for themselves as females in New England. In an essay by Fessenden titled “Dress,” and dated November 6, 1852, we can see a teenager processing the stereotypes within her geography and history lessons and relating those lessons to what she had been taught about correct feminine behavior. The essay (in its entirety) reads (any errors in the transcript are taken directly from the original document):

“The style of dress has varied very much in the different ages and in different countries and climates. In the early ages, the dress was very simple. We read in the Bible that God clothes Adam and Even in the skins of wild beasts and savage nations still continue to use them for this purpose. After a time other articles were used for dress, such as wool and flax. At length garments of fine linen and even silk were used by the rich, these were often dyed purple, crimson, and scarlet. Princesses wore dresses embroidered with needle-work and females in the East still embroider in this manner. The dresses of the Persians, unlike ours, are unalterable, and as unchangeable as their laws. It is their custom to shave their heads; they wear high crimson caps, and long cloaks. The women wear vails and frequently turbans of colored silks, also short robes and loose trousers.

“The dress of the Chinese is long and loose. The chief garment is a robe reaching nearly to the ground; over this is work a girdle of silk from which are suspend a knife in a sheath, and the two sticks which they use instead of forks in eating. Their shirts are short and wide. The trousers are wide and in winter lined with fur. On their heads they wear a cap of woven cane in the shape of an inverted cone. No one is considered in full dress without a fan.

The Turks wear large and loose robes, and allow their beards to grow very long. The first inhabitants of Great Brittain were dressed like our first parents in the skins of beasts. They painted their arms and legs blue. Their priests or Druids were dressed in white with Oak leaves on their heads.

“Queen Elizabeth of England, daughter of Henry the Eighth, had a great passion of dress, every day appearing in a different one. When she died nearly three thousand dresses were found in her wardrobe.

“In our own time great extravagance is sometimes shown in dress, especially in cities. It seems as if one was scarcely fixed for winter, when called upon to alter that dress, for spring and then for summer and so on – we should not pay too much attention to dress, although always enough to look neat and tidy, and not in a manner that will attract too much attention to ourselves. We should have more regard to our means and wants than to the imperious demands of Fashions, which often reconciles us to great inconsistencies and absurdities.”

Both young women wrote about the evils of accumulating too much wealth, and the contrasting piety of poverty. These essays reflected the influence of protestantism, with their emphasis on forsaking material goods, one’s eventual death, and uncertain entry into Heaven. For example, in an untitled composition dated December 11, 1852, Norton wrote:

“Our happiness both in this world and the world to which we are all hastening depends much upon the manner in which we spend our youth. If we have spend our time in play and neglected the first rudiments of learning with how much contempt shall we be held by those who are more advanced in knowledge. And also the man who has neglected the golden opportunity of advancing in knowledge while young often himself degraded below his fellowmen for the want of the greatest ornament of human life.”

And then, as students sometimes do, she ended hastily: “But the bell announces me that I must draw this apology for a composition to a close.”

In a similar, undated essay titled “Time,” Norton reflected how, “we shall have ended our life on earth and go to another world to live in eternal peace, and holiness or in misery and wretchedness. Here shall we hear the welcome message, ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of your Lord’ or will it be the awful sentence, ‘Depart from me ye cursed?'” Her teacher responded with comments not about her awkward prose, but rather, “Will Ellen ask this question of her own heart and answer it in the view of the judgement to which we are all rapidly hastening?”

Though many of the essays gave the impression that these two women were serious scholars, others show that they both harbored great imaginations. For example, having come of age at time when California became a state (helped by the gold rush), both Fessenden and Norton wrote about westward adventures, typically from the perspectives of floundering prospectors. In my personal favorite by Fessenden dated January 11, 1853 and titled “Gossip,” the California Gold Rush ties into a supposedly true incident that teaches the evils of presuming too much. It reads:

“Gossiping is very a pernicious habit, which all should avoid. We should be interest in, but should not intermeddle with, the affairs of others. Much unhappiness has been caused by indulgence in this habit of which the follow is but one of the many examples which are constantly securing.
“In the city in which I resided, there lived a young couple just beginning the world together. Mrs._ was young, handsome, and fond of society. Mr. _ was kind and affectionate but inclined to jealousy. They lived on happily, till the California mania spread itself over the land; Mr. _ was allured by the visions of glittering gold, and departed leaving his hearthstone desolate. Some months after his departure, the youngest brother of Mrs._ returned from China, where he had been for many years. He was entirely unknown in the place. Finding his sister lonely, he exerted himself to amuse her and interest here. They walked and rode together, visited the opera and many other places of amusement. These doing were reported and gossiped about until finally one busy body wrote to her husband a letter filled with slanderous stories and exports of her unfaithfulness. No one who had known her well could have doubted her faithfulness to him. But his jealousy was aroused and he immediately started for home in rage. He returned late at night to find her absent at a large ball, accompanied by the accused young man. He immediately proceeded to the mansion where the ball was held, and saw them, but did not know the gentleman, having never seen him before. He immediately demanded satisfaction and the time and place for a duel was appointed. It was fought and at the first fire, Mr._ had his arm shattered. A physician was at hand, who bound it up and in this situation he was conveyed home insensible. Mrs. _ nearly fainting with terror at the spectacle, beheld her husband covered with blood. This was the first intimation, which she had received of his arrival. The wound brought on a long sickness, during which all things were explained, and the cause of all this misfortune traced back to gossiping.”

Overall, their essays demonstrate a focus on the art of writing to demonstrate acquired knowledge, but not necessarily the art of forming and defending unique opinions. That’s still a difficult skill to impart to college students in 2016, but its a little unsettling to see how even over time – eight years in Fessenden’s case – the writing improves in grammar and style, but not necessarily content. In 2016, college faculty focus primarily on teaching critical thinking skills, which is very different from what I see in these essays.

Truth be told, as I was reading these my first thought was to transcribe them and slip them into the teeming stacks of essays our English faculty read every semester… just to see what grade they might get. It would be especially interesting to see what our contemporary faculty would think of students who write about the California Gold Rush and dueling.

Well, it has been a productive three weeks in Hartford at the Connecticut Historical Society and the Watkinson Library. Today is my last day in Hartford, CT. At 2pm I will board a train for Northampton, MA and start the next leg of my journey at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. The adventure continues.


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