| “The Betsy Lewis Copybook: A New England Girl’s Education”
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in Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, v. 114, issue 3 (1980) p. 268-273
By Diane L. Fagan Affleck, Registrar, DAR Museum
April is always an especially busy time at the DAR Museum because many members coming to Washington bring along objects they want to offer as possible additions to the Museum’s collection. Mrs. J. Gene Edwards was not able to attend Congress last year but sent along a small copybook with some friends from Peoria. The couple who delivered the package for Mrs. Edwards must have thought everyone on the staff had taken leave of her senses because as we looked over the little book, we became more and more excited. What we had before us was a copybook written by Betsy Lewis to practice her penmanship and spelling, record verses, and practice drawing and painting. She was a Massachusetts schoolgirl in 1800 and 1803, when she lived in the town of Dorchester. This book is an extremely valuable addition to the Museum’s collection and is a source for research on a number of topics of interest to students of both the decorative arts and social history.
The copybook was written in two separately bound sections at two different times, and probably at two different schools. The part which Betsy wrote in 1800 is a collection of poetry memorializing the death of George Washington, an event which inspired the production of all sorts of commemoratives in decorative arts and literature. The later section of the copybook includes “Lemmington’s German Text and Old English Hand” and watercolored drawings of flowers, grasses, and leaves, as well as poetry. This was “Transcrib’d at the Ladies Academy/Dorchester May 10 1803 / By / Betsy Lewis.” The pages of the book ,each approximately 6” x 7 ½”, have been sewn together by hand and at least one common pin is still caught under the threads on the bound edge. Like many other handmade books of the time, the cover is made of wallpaper and is painted in squares of blue, green, and red watercolors.
Betsy Lewis’ schoolwork has provided a primary source of information about the education of young women in the 18th and 19th centuries. By looking at the book in a variety of ways and using it as a research tool, we are adding to our knowledge about who went to school and who did not, what subjects were taught in what kinds of schools, and exactly what skills students were expected to master.
Betsy was the oldest daughter of James Lewis and Hanna Pierce Lewis and was born on January 21, 1786, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Genealogical research has thus far not revealed her father’s occupation, but it is known that he served as a soldier in Massachusetts during the American Revolution. Betsy was the second child in a family of eight children, including three boys and five girls. The elite quality of education which Betsy was given and its consequent cost suggest that her family enjoyed at least a moderately substantial standard of living. At the age of twenty-two Betsy married Elisha Hunt, a widower with four children who also lived in Dorchester. In the ten years left in Betsy’s life, she bore four children—Elisha (b. June 16, 1810), William Lewis (b. August 29, 1912), Susan Wild (b. November 4, 1814), and Myra (b. March 20, 1818). Nothing is yet known of her life at this time, although a poem composed in 1810 appears on the inside cover of her copybook, indicating her continuing interest in the skills and accomplishments she learned at school On December 24, 1818, Betsy Lewis Hunt died. She was buried in the cemetery organized by the Dorchester First Church, the same church in which she had been baptized, in a grave next to her brother Benjamin. The epitaph reads:
There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign;
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasure banish pain.
Hannah and James Lewis must have been particularly interested in their daughter’s education, and this at a time when many people still felt it a wasted effort to educate girls. During the 17th and early 18th centuries it had been a widely accepted idea that only boys were worth educating because a girl’s intelligence was inferior and also because education was actually dangerous for girls. Toward the end of the 18th century, educational opportunities for girls increased, probably in part as a result of the attitude that a minimum of education for everyone would better serve the ideals of the new American republic. It also became popular to take a more pragmatic view of the value of education. While believing that a woman’s duty in life was to act as homemaker, wife, and mother, many people thought that an education would better fit a woman for her role. Since women were their children’s first teachers and greatest childhood influence, they should be able to provide their offspring, and particularly their sons, with the best possible start for their futures.
It was in this climate of thought that many schools for girls were begun I the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While some were almost complete a “finishing” school where girls worked to become domestically accomplished young women, others provided a more academic training while still making sure that a girl acquired the talents necessary to attract a young man.
Betsy’s collection of poetry about George Washington was most certainly compiled while she was a student, but thus far, this work has not been associated with any particular school. She marked these pages with only her name, spelled “Betsey” at this time, and “Dorchester Marchth 1800.” But the fact that the collection runs to a length of forty-seven pages indicates that this was a school exercise.
In the months and years after the General’s death, George Washington became the object of national mourning during which he was nearly deified. Almost no form of praise seemed excessive. One poem ends with the lines
While moving orbs their heavenly circles run,
His deeds should live and travel with the Sun,
To light all ages in the path of time
Allure by virtue’s charms in every clime,
Till God shall finish his terrestrial plan
And stamp his own eternity on Man.
| Only two of the poems are accompanied by an indication of their authors. One verse is titled simply “Lines by a Lady” and another was composed by the Rev. W. Elliot. All the rest remain anonymous pending further research. Whether or not Betsey, herself, wrote any of these poems, odes, recitatives, or dirges is unknown.
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The part of the copybook written in 1803 was done while Betsey attended the “Ladies Academy.” This school was almost certainly that of Judith Saunders and Clementina Beach. In 1803 these two women began their school in Dorchester, where it continued for more than thirty years as a highly regarded institution of superior quality. An advertisement which appeared in the Columbian Centinel and in the Boston Independent Chronicle in 1803 listed their offerings as follows:
MRS. SAUNDERS and MISS BEACH respectfully acquaint their Friends and the Public that their Spring Quarter commences on the first day of April next.
TERMS Dls. Cts.
Board, per quarter 30
Reading, Writing, English Grammar
Arithmetic, Plain Sewing, Embroidery,
Tambour, French Language, Painting,
Geography, including the
Use of the Globes,
Hair work on ivory (added to the above 6
Washing, per doz. 50
A Pupil confined to Reading, Spelling, and
Plain Sewing, will be charged no more
than 4 50
Stationary the same as at the Booksellers,
A Dancing Master and Music Master will be en-
Gaged as soon as a sufficient number of Scholars
MRS. SAUNDERS and MISS BEACH present
their grateful acknowledgments for favors already
received, and will exert themselves to merit a
continuance of them. March 26th.
| The emphasis on reading, writing and grammar is readily apparent in Betsy Lewis’ copybook, which begins with her practice of script capitals, the same letters being repeated in a variety of styles. Next is a sequence of words, each beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. Among the list written in Old English style, she includes such uncommon words as “Beatration,” “Gamesomeness,” “Rubricated,” and “Vesternight.” The next alphabetical list in German script has in it “Fagitiousness,” “Kidnappered,” “Marmoration,” and “Zembermount.” Many of these words must have been new to the students, since several of the terms do not even appear in Noah Webster’s first dictionary which was published in 1806.
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As the 19th century progressed, painting and drawing became more popular subjects for the proper young lady, and a great deal of Betsy’s time must have been spent on such work because she includes scenes in her book to illustrate poems about the seasons and about farming. A talented schoolgirl artist, she worked in ink and watercolors. Her drawings show a good grasp of the basic techniques of painting and an ability to draw with humor and grace. The greatest part of her copybook consists of watercolor and ink representations of flowers and grasses, probably drawn from nature. Collecting specimens for their art classes was probably a welcome form of exercise for the girls, and one considered appropriate for young ladies.
The poetry included in the copybook is typical of 18th and 19th century pastoral verse in praise of the beauty of nature and the virtue of honest labor. Betsy’s transcription of eleven lines marked as “Thomson’s Spring” comes from one of a series of five poems about nature which make up The Seasons by James Thomson. Born in 1700 in Scotland, the poet first published the series between 1726 and 1729. Because this work was written in blank verse at a time when other poets such as Alexander Pope used the heroic couplet and because the poems dealt with the subject of nature, Thomson is often regarded as a forerunner of the romantic movement. His popularity with readers is confirmed by the fact that between 1730 and 1800 The Seasons was printed fifty times.
Surrounding Betsy’s watercolor farm scenes is poetry from “The Farmer’s Boy,” written by another British poet, Robert Bloomfield. Working as an agricultural laborer and later as a shoemaker under his brother in London, Bloomfield lived in extreme poverty. Although “The Farmer’s boy” is the only work for which he is known today, after the poem was first published in 1800, it reportedly sold 26,000 copies in less than three years. At the time Betsy transcribed the poem in her copybook, it was probably among the most popular of current verse.
It should be remembered that both the reading and writing of poetry was much more common in the 19th than in the 20th century. Inside the front cover of her copy book, Betsy Lewis Hunt, as a young married woman, wrote a poem: “on seeing my little babe asleep in the cradle/ Elisha.” This was her first child, born in 1810, whom she described:
Helpless babe thus sweetly slumbering
Please I view thy artless charms
Thee no anxious cares encumbering
Thy soft bosom naught alarms …
Her ability to draw, paint, and write poetry all indicate that Betsy was a lady of many fine accomplishments and a well educated woman in her time.
Much of the work of girls’ academies is known through needlework pieces which survive today in both private and museum collections. A number of elaborate needlework pictures worked by girls at the Ladies Academy attest to the quality of instruction given there. Such work, which is often framed with glass lettered “Wrought by _________ at Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach’s Academy Dorchester,” ahs been the source for the names of many of the students. There is no needlework now known to us at the DAR Museum, which was done by Betsy Lewis. There is, however, as series of four watercolors done by Betsy recently donated to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. These are part of a “metamorphosis” book made in 1801. The illustrated verses, including The Peaceable Kingdom, Sweet Flocks, The Eagle, and Old Spring, were intended to provide the young with spiritual and moral guidance. This gift was announced in the Winter 1980 Museum of American Folk Art publication, The Clarion. The name Betsey Lewis, aged 15, and the date 1801 given. A letter and telephone call confirmed that she was our Betsy Lewis and copies of materials are now being exchanged by both institutions. Often the awareness of work done by people other than major artists or craftsmen in other museum collections is a matter of happenstance. Yet, when an instance such as this is recognized, the resultant sharing of information and sources is very rewarding. The corroboration of material about Betsy Lewis gathered here at the DAR Museum and by the staff at the Museum of American Folk Art has been very helpful. We expect to exchange a great deal more information which will be of use in our continuing research.
The more we learn about our objects and the people who produced them, the more we will be able to interpret and appreciate our past.
The genealogical information was put together from a number of sources, which include the following:
Annual Report of the Cemetery Department of the City of Boston for the Fiscal Year 1904-1905 and a Historical Sketch of the First Burying Ground in Dorchester (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1905), pp. 148-9.
A Volume of Records Relating to the Early History of Boston, Containing Boston Marriages from 1752 to 1809 (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1903) p. 235.
“Baptisms in the First Church at Dorchester, Mass., 1748-1792,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. LXVIII, No. 20 (October 1914) p. 371.
National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Patriot Index (Washington, 1966) p. 413.
T.B. Wyman, Jr., Genealogy of the Name and Family of Hunt (Boston, 1862-3) p. 270.
Betty Ring, a well-known researcher and writer on American girls’ schools and schoolgirl art, has seen the copybook. She has researched and published an article about “Mrs. Saunders’ and Miss Beach’s Academy, Dorchester” in The Magazine Antiques, August 1976, pp. 302-12, and she feels certain that the part of Betsy Lewis’ copybook which is marked “Ladies Academy” was done in the school run by Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach.
The advertisement appeared in issues of the March 1803 Columbian Centinel and the Boston Independent Chronicle and was cited in the article by Betty Ring, “Mrs. Saunders’ and Miss Beach’s Academy, Dorchester,” the Magazine Antiques, August 1976, p. 305.
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Created: June 12, 2011 Modified: June 12, 2011