Mary Livermore Seeks an Education

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

When Mary Livermore graduated from a Boston grammar school at fourteen, she could not immediately continue her education. Options were far more limited for young women than for young men in the early nineteenth century, although Mary had more choices than her mother or grandmothers would have had. Many years later Livermore recalled the difficulties and satisfactions of this time in her life.

The path she took—from student to milliner’s apprentice, then back to student, and then to teacher—shows how a talented and persistent young woman was able to find her way, working out disagreements with her father and her family’s concern about the costs of education. What may surprise us is her rapid transition from student to teacher at the seminary. Because no special training or credential was required for teaching in the early nineteenth century, an especially promising young man or woman might be a pupil one term and an instructor the next.

Transcription of Primary Source

At the age of fourteen and a half years, I graduated from the Hancock School, and received one of the six medals annually awarded to girls for good scholarship and behavior…The award of a medal compelled my retirement from the school. I could have remained until the age of sixteen but for that. The city provided no higher education for girls than that of the grammar schools. There were denominational academies and seminaries that offered something in the way of more advanced education, and fashionable private schools…[but] the tuition at these latter schools was expensive, and public sentiment was not very warm in their favor.

What I was to do next was not very clear to my parents, and meantime, while my future hung in the balance, I was informed that I was to study at home and help my mother. I had views of my own which did nor comport with this ignoble disposition of my time, for there were so many to help in our simple household, that I should have been idle half the time…

It was very irksome to my impatient spirit to await my father’s slow decision concerning the next step in my training, and very soon I had formulated plans of my own, and promptly proceeded to execute them. I sought the establishment of a well−known dressmaker in the neighborhood, and bargained with her to teach me her trade. I seemed much older than I really was, and had a serious air for one of my age. She probably thought me skilled in the use of the needle, for she agreed to teach me all she herself knew in four months. My father frowned on this scheme, but my mother favored it. If I learned nothing else, I should now be compelled to learn to sew. The months that followed were very severe, and very wearisome. I lost appetite and flesh under my self−imposed duty. But I was in dead earnest, and determined to learn the art of dressmaking. I foreswore all reading and study for the time, and persisted to the end,—not losing an hour, nor missing an opportunity of acquiring the knowledge I sought. I finally mastered what I had undertaken, and was able to cut, fit, sew, and finish such gowns as were worn by women and children, if they were not too elaborately trimmed.

When my apprenticeship was ended, I presented my mother a pretty dress, bought with money I had earned at dressmaking in the evenings, when I worked for my young friends and relatives. Not only had I bought the material, but I had cut, fitted, and made the gown with my own hands, which became her wonderfully. The gift drew from her encomiums and endearing language, which were not elicited by the winning of the Hancock School medal. I never again heard her express fears lest I might become a “shiftless” woman, a characterization as terrible as an anathema, from the lips of a thorough New Englander. I had little opportunity at that time to practice my newly−acquired art outside my own home, nor were the wages to be earned at it sufficiently large to tempt me to follow it. The best and most experienced dressmakers commanded only fifty cents for a day’s work of twelve hours, and a novice like myself was paid not more than twenty−five or thirty−seven and a half cents. But the time came in after years when, as wife and mother, my early knowledge of dressmaking was of great value to me.

At last it was decided that I should enter the “Female Seminary” at Charlestown (now included within the limits of Boston) and pursue a regular course of study. This announcement, made by my father at the breakfast table one morning, banished all thoughts of dressmaking, and allayed my anxieties lest my school days were ended. This seminary, established and conducted by the Baptists, was a famous educational institution in that day of small things, and was considered one of the best in New England…

…The Faculty was composed of scholarly and lovable young women, all intent on improvement, and on doing their best for the pupils committed to their care. I fell in love with them all immediately, after my headlong fashion, and was so unspeakably happy that I would not have thanked any one for a ticket of admission to heaven. To meet Miss Catherine−Badger, the excellent teacher of astronomy, on a cold winter morning at five o’clock, that we might study some phenomena of the heavens through her telescope, was a bliss beyond compare. To be sure, I was obliged to rise early, between the hours of three and four in the morning, walk a mile or more to her father’s house, where her telescope was mounted, and was half frozen in the effort. But what of that? I was compensated by a look through the telescope under her direction, and by listening to her explanations and suggestions, which were sure to set my imagination on fire and give wings to my fancy…

There was only one drawback, and that grew out of the ever−present and morbid fear that the expense of my education was encroaching too heavily on the slender resources of my parents…Whenever I presented a bill to my father for the payment of books and tuition, I counted it a dark day in my calendar, to be observed with anguish and tears. I did not understand that the happiness of both my parents was heightened by their efforts to educate their children, and in witnessing their progress…

The burden was unexpectedly lifted from me. Before the first term was ended, one of the teachers in the junior department was compelled to resign her position, on account of death in her father’s family, and I was invited by the trustees of the seminary to take her place during the remainder of the term, on the same salary received by her. I was to teach arithmetic, English grammar, history, geography, English composition, and penmanship, for which I was thought competent. The confidence expressed in my ability gave me faith in myself, and I accepted the invitation, which would enable me to provide for the next term at the seminary…I was re−elected to the same position the following term as an “Assistant Pupil,” and at the same time took more than the full course of study. With unremitting effort and unflagging industry, working almost incessantly day and night, I accomplished in two years the course that was laid out for four, and was elected to the Board of Instruction by the trustees before the day of my graduation. I was to teach both French and Latin to which afterwards was added instruction in Italian.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Story of My Life
Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.
Livermore, Mary
A. D. Worthington Co.
Place of Publication: 
Hartford, CT
Old Sturbridge Village