| Of the many schools for young women that sprang up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Saunders and Beach Academy in Dorchester emerged as one of the most respectable. Today the school is especially remembered for the noteworthy silk embroideries created by the students under the supervision of Judith Foster Saunders and Clementina Beach. Examples from this school are in the collections of the Winterthur Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Old Sturbridge Village, the Dorchester Historical Society and many others. Indeed, "no other girls' school of the Federal period has left so many positively identified examples of delicate and sophisticated pictorial needlework."
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Although the house that Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach chose for their school is now much altered, it still stands at the corner of Adams and East Streets. The women purchased the house from William and Frederick Pope, lumber merchants based in Dorchester. Saunders had already operated a school in her hometown of Gloucester and was known for her exceptional skillful teaching of needlework as early as 1802. She had no children, and little is known of her husband Thomas Bradbury Saunders who died in 1810. Her well-known cousin Judith Sargent Murray helped Saunders and Beach with the description of their new venture
"I drew up the following preamble, and subjoined terms ? Informed that the Town of Dorchester is destitute of a Seminary for Young Ladies, and impressed with reports of a high idea of the salubrity of the air, eligibility of the situation, and liberal urbanity of the inhabitants?two ladies, the one a native of America and the other born and educated in England ?propose forming an academy in that place, where they will receive young Ladies as boarders upon terms hereafter to be committed?They engage to teach Reading, English, Grammar, Writing, Arithmetic, the French language, Geography, including the use of Globes, needle work in all its branches, painting, and hair work upon ivory ..."
and in finding a house for their new academy in 1803.
"Passing out of church yesterday I caught Doctor Townsend's eye, and requesting a moment's attention, I obtained a promise that he would call upon me this morning?.He is highly in favour of your contemplated purchase, and pronounces the house better built than any within his knowledge, the materials were well prepared, and put together, in the best manner ..."
Judith Sargent Murray, a poet and essayist whose work was published in the Massachusetts Magazine, encouraged the two women in their establishment of the school. She placed advertisements, helped them to secure the property and helped in recruiting students. Murray herself was a promoter of female abilities and believed in improved educational opportunities for women.
"I am especially gratified by that attention to the female mind, so unequivocally evinced in the encouragement given to the many seminaries for young Ladies ? this assurance gives new ardor to my wishes, that the guardians of young persons may become acquainted with the advantages attendant upon the Academy lately opened in Dorchester. A salubrious air in the vicinity of a house of worship, and the neighborhood of a meritorious and celebrated Clergyman, are capital points in the selection of a residence for children. The Academy at Dorchester unites these privileges, and the occasional resort of genteel people to this healthful recess, may under the management of the judicious preceptress, conduce much to the forming the manners of those young Ladies who are designed to figure in the great world."
The two women bought the house for their Academy from Frederick and William Pope, lumber merchants in Dorchester, on June 16, 1804, although they must have moved in prior to that. They advertised in the Columbian Centinel and the Boston Independent Chronicle in March, 1803.
Similar newpaper announcements of their spring term appeared almost every year through 1827. No other school in the vicinity advertised its facilities more profusely or consistently. The census of 1810 shows an astonishing total of forty people were then residing in this house: one young male, thirty-six young ladies, and three women. It is difficult to imagine how so many could have been adequately lodged in a house which had about nine rooms. The house was enlarged by the addition of a long ell at the rear in 1817. From 1822 to 1824 they conducted their school at other locations, but in May, 1825, they returned to their house in Dorchester, where they continued teaching until 1834 and probably longer.
Anthony Sammarco wrote an article entitled "At Dorchester academy, proper young ladies learned needlework," published in the Dorchester Community News 5 November 1993. Click hereto see the pdf version of this article.
Betty Ring. "Mrs. Saunders' and Miss Beach's Academy, Dorchester." in The Magazine Antiques, August 1976, p. 302-312.
Letter dated November 29, 1802: Judith Sargent Murray to Judith F. Saunders in Judith Sargent Murray Papers, Letter Book 12, Microfilm, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Courtesy of Bonnie Smith.
Letter dated November 28, 1803: Judith Sargent Murray to Saunders and Beach in Judith Sargent Murray Papers, Letter Book 12, Microfilm, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Courtesy of Bonnie Smith.
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Created: February 10, 2008 Modified: June 11, 2011