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Academy Students in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Social Geography, Demography, and the Culture of Academy Attendance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Nancy Beadie*
University of Washington, Seattle


Academies and academy students increased substantially in number during the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Why? Who were these students and what did academy attendance mean to them? Theodore R. Sizer asked these questions in 1964, but his ability to answer them was limited by the absence of studies that focused on academy students. In this essay I reexamine Sizer's understanding of academies in light of evidence provided by subsequent studies of student populations. These studies include my own comparative analysis of data from nearly 500 Regents academies that operated in New York State between 1835 and 1890, as well as in-depth case studies of individual institutions by myself and others.

Copyright © 2001 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Sizer, Theodore R.The Academies: An Interpretation,“ in The Age of the Academies (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1964), 148.

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2 The comparative study has been published in a series of articles: Nancy Beadie, “Female Students and Denominational Affiliation: Sources of Success Among Nineteenth-Century Academies,” American Journal of Education 107 (February 1999): 75–115; “From Student Markets to Credential Markets: The Creation of the Regents Examination System in New York State, 1864–1890,” History of Education Quarterly 39 (Spring 1999): 1–30; and “Market-Based Policies of School Funding: Lessons from the History of the New York Academy System,” Educational Policy 13 (May 1999): 296–317. Case studies of individual institutions include David F. Allmendinger, “Mount Holyoke Students Encounter the Need for Life Planning, 1837–1850” History of Education Quarterly 19 (Spring 1979):27–46; Anne Firor Scott, “The Ever Widening Circle: The Diffusion of Feminist Values From the Troy Female Seminary, 1822–72,” ibid., 3–25; and Kathryn Kerns, “Antebellum Higher Education for Women in Western New York State” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1993). One of the institutions studied by Kerns is an academy that I also studied as part of a larger community study: Nancy Beadie, “Defining the Public: Congregation, Commerce and Social Economy in the Formation of the Educational System, 1790–1840” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1989). In this study I looked at the social demography and culture of schooling at all levels (including common schools, an academy and a college) in the town of Lima, New York during the early republican and antebellum eras. Also on New York academies, see George Frederick Miller, The Academy System of the State of New York (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon, 1922) and Edward Herring O'Neil, “Private Schools and Public Vision: A History of Academies in Upstate New York” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1984).

3 Sizer, The Academies,“ p. 40.

4 Annual Report of the Regents of the University of the State of New York (Albany: The State of New York, 1851). To determine town size, town names for individual academies in the Regents report were matched with census population figures published in Manual for the Use of the Legislature of the State of New York (Albany: New York State Department of State, 1855).

5 Kerns, Antebellum Higher Education,“ 155192.

6 On the social geography of academies see Edward Herring O'Neil, “Private Schools and Public Vision: A History of Academies in Upstate New York” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1984).

7 Kerns, Antebellum Higher Education,“ 155192. For comparison I refer also to “Annual Catalogue of Phipps Union Seminary, 1855,” Phipps Union Seminary Collection, Swan Library, Albion, New York; “Catalogue of Delaware Literary Institute for the Academic Year 1860–61,” New York State Library, Albany, New York.

8 For further discussion of the factors contributing to the relative size and success of different academies, see Beadie, “Female Students and Denominational Affiliation.”

9 Sizer, The Academies,“ 40.

10 Kett, Joseph Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America: 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 19.

11 Ibid.

12 Diary of Eli Rogers,” Library, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York.

13 Vinovskis, MarisHave We Underestimated the Extent of Antebellum High School Attendance?History of Education Quarterly 28 (Winter 1988): 551–67.

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14 As Vinovskis has emphasized, annual enrollment figures are not an accurate reflection of the total share of a given age cohort who ever received high school or academy instruction. To determine the proportion of youth aged 10 to 19 in 1850 who ever attended higher institutions, one must take into account not only all the students actually enrolled in 1850, but the eleven-year-olds who in 1850 had not yet attended a high school or academy, as well as seventeen-year-olds who, like Eli Rogers, attended in 1849 and 1851 but not in 1850. In his study, Vinvoskis developed a method for making such determinations. Here I have used Vinovskis’ method to estimate local attendance rates at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York, based on annual attendance of local students at the academy in 1850.

15 Using Vinovskis’ method I estimate that 13.3 percent of all New York State youth aged 10 to 19 in 1860 attended a Regents academy at some time in their lives. This included youth who lived in towns without Regents academies as well as youth who lived in towns that did. Similarly, Vinovskis estimated that 14.6 percent of all Essex County, MA youth aged 10 to 19 in 1860 attended a public high school at some time in their lives. Again, this included towns without high schools as well as towns with high schools. For a full discussion of these state-wide comparisons, see Beadie, “From Student Markets to Credentials Markets.”

16 Sizer, The Academies,“ 36.

17 Annual Report of the Regents, 1851. My assessments of academy student enrollments and the number and kind of academies in operation state-wide are drawn from an analysis of data drawn from the Report of the Regents at five year intervals from 1835 to 1890.

18 Sizer, The Academies,“ 37n.

19 In his 1988 study of the Central High School of Philadelphia, for example, David Labaree used four class categories to analyze the social backgrounds of students: 1) the proprietary or “old” middle class of self-employed shopkeepers, manufacturers and professionals; 2) the employed or “new” middle class of white-collar wage-earners; 3) the skilled working class including skilled craftsmen; and 4) the semi-skilled and unskilled working class. Other scholars use somewhat different classification systems, but similarly define the middle class to include professionals, proprietors and other “white collar” workers, which generally means employees involved in non-manual labor. Under these systems, farmers, when they appear at all, are either lumped together with “other white collar” occupations, as in Reed Ueda's study of Somerville High School, or with craftsmen, as in Michael Katz's classification system for Hamilton, Ontario. Although this is fine for settings in which farmers constitute only a tiny fraction of the relevant population, it is obviously inadequate for contexts in which farming is the single most prevalent occupation. David Labaree, The Making of American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 40; Reed Ueda, Avenues to Adulthood: The Origins of the High School and Social Mobility in an American Suburb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 45; Michael B. Katz, “Occupational Classification in History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 3 (Summer 1972):63–88.

20 Kerns, Antebellum Higher Education,“ 194–5.

21 These figures are based on an analysis of local student households as compared with those of all local households in the town of Lima, New York (the location of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary) as recorded in the U.S. Census of 1850.

22 Blumin, Stuart The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989), 245.

23 In this way we could imagine that academies effectively institutionalized the “organizing process” that Donald Mathews long ago identified as an essential dynamic of Protestant evangelicalism in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Donald Mathews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780–1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (March 1969): 23–43.

24 Sizer, The Academies,“ 15.

25 The diarist Eli Rogers, discussed above, pursue this career pattern. See also Scott, “Troy Female Seminary;” Allmendinger, “Mt. Holyoke,” Kerns, “Antebellum Higher Education,” and Polly Welts Kauffman, Women Teachers on the Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984): 230–253.

26 One might expect, for example, that many of the clerks who figure importantly in Mary Ryan's study of middle class formation in Utica, New York attended academies. Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). So far, however, no one has made schooling a significant part of their analysis of voluntary organizations and class formation in the Jacksonian era.

27 Vinvoskis, Have We Underestimated…?,“ 567.

28 Letter from “Hattie” in Waverly to “Mary” at Albion, New York dated October 6th, 1863. Phipps Union Seminary Collection, Swan Library, Albion, New York.

29 “Diary of Frances Connor Smith [Wells],” 1831–37. Box 10, William H. Emerson Family papers, 1758–1953, University of Rochester Library, Special Collections.

30 Explaining the first situation in a letter to a friend, Frances wrote that she would not be able to return to the academy in the fall of 1831 as she would like. “The instructress which I have is competent to instruct me in any of the higher branches I should wish to pursue, and she will probably remain with us a year, so you see all hope is precluded.” “Letter to Elsa” date June 5, 1831, in “Diary of Frances Connors Smith.”

31 Diary of Frances Smith,” October 7th and 8th, 1833.

32 I would like to thank Julie Reuben for suggesting this way of framing the interpretive issues that follow.

33 On the question of class, Kerns has found that female students at coeducational academies were more involved in paid work and more likely to continue involvement in paid work after marriage than were female students at female academies. In the cases of these women, who seem to have expected to contribute to their own support in much the same way as male students did, academy attendance may have had much the same relationship to work as it did for male students.

34 For one thing, female academies and the female departments of co-ed academies appear to have been much more concerned about elaborating full courses of study for their female students than they were for their male students. One scholar has found, for example, that of the sixty-two Connecticut academies whose catalogs he analyzed for the period before 1860, only three advertised systematic, sequential programs of study, and two of these three were female academies. At the same time, female academies constituted only 15 percent of the total number of academies he studied. Harvey S. Reed, “The Period of the Academy in Connecticut,” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1942):77–9. In addition, academy bulletins sometimes printed statements admonishing parents for failing to allow their daughters to pursue a “full” and “entire” course of instruction. (See, for example, “Bulletin of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary,” 1836, Genesee Wesleyan Seminary Collection, Syracuse University Archives, George Arents Research Library, Syracuse, New York; “Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Phipps Union Seminary, 1851,” Swan Library, Albion, New York.) By mid-century, moreover, the desires of educators seem to have been granted, as women increasingly enrolled in higher schooling and completed courses of study at higher rates than males.

35 Diary of Eli Rogers,” August 18, 1854.

36 Diary of Frances Connors Smith,” April 21, 1833.

37 Much the same attitude of academic self-discipline and self-direction and even some nearly identical sentiments were expressed by southern diarist Laura Wirt Randall in the late 1820s and early 1830s. See Anya Jabour, “ ‘It Will Never Do For Me to Be Married': The Life of Laura Wirt Randall, 1803–33,” Journal of the Early Republic 17 (Summer 1997): 193–236. In addition, Louise Stevenson refers to a number of statements of similar tenor in female diaries and correspondence in her book on Victorian culture, noted below.

38 Stevenson, Louise L. The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860–1880 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991): 3047; quotations from p.33. Joan Jacobs Brumberg also refers to a culture of concern with character development in the diaries of 19th century young women in her study of female adolescence. Unfortunately for us, however, her focus on how this culture changed in the twentieth century led her to provide few quotations or specific references from the earlier period, even though she apparently did collect the diaries that would have allowed her to do so. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Vantage, 1998).

39 Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, 165–79.

40 On the culture of credentialism I refer to David Labaree, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

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