by Francis Wells Fox
[The following account of the life of Joseph Emerson was written by Francis Wells Fox in 1934 for presentation to the Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club of Wethersfield. A brief history of that organization follows the article. Wethersfield’s Emerson Williams Elementary School is named in honor of the Reverend Joseph Emerson and the Reverend (and Colonel) Elisha Williams.]
Joseph Emerson was born in Hollis, N.H. in 1777. He was very ill when a baby and as a result his health was permanently impaired. All through life it was necessary for him to take great care of himself.
His brother said one reason he accomplished so much in life was the fact of his being such an invalid that he felt he must improve what strength he had.
He was graduated from Harvard College in 1798 and was asked to become a tutor there, but declined, thinking it might be considered vanity if he accepted. He recalled his decision, however, and was a tutor at Harvard two years while studying for the ministry. Afterward he taught school in Framingham, Mass. One of his pupils was Nancy Naton, whom he married soon after he was settled as a minister of a church in Beverly.
It was Nancy’s aptitude for learning that first interested him in advanced education for women. He seemed to have a talent for teaching scientific subjects to girls at a time when it was supposed that only masculine minds could grasp such subjects.
He took the deepest interest in his work, the Bible with him was the only standard of moral action, and every case of right and wrong was judged by that unerring rule. The high esteem accorded women in the Bible was another reason for his desire that they should receive education.
His first wife did not live very long. His second wife was Eleanor Reed a close friend of Nancy’s, but unfortunately she was far from strong and died of tuberculosis in a few years, leaving a small daughter, Nancy.
He preached in Beverly thirteen years and finally was obliged to resign on account of ill health. He had suffered a severe illness in 1812, perhaps it was rheumatism of some sort – his wrists and ankles were affected and he was unable to write or walk much. He kept up his literary work by dictation and was obliged to have a chair in the pulpit and give up exercise.
After two years he decided to rest. He went to Norfolk, Conn. for awhile. In 1810 he married Rebecca Hazeltine, she was of great assistance to him in teaching.
His next church was in Byfield in 1815 and there he opened a Female Seminary. They were so happy in Byfield that he declared he should never move until he moved to the eternal world. He must have changed his mind for they moved to Saugus in 1821. Here his church was smaller but his Seminary was larger. Two of his pupils in Byfield later became well known, one was Zilpath Grant who established an academy in Ipswich Mass. And Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College. Joseph Emerson has been called the inspiration of that celebrated college.
He spent some in Wilmington, Delaware or N.C. for his health. He seems to have found it impossible to rest for while there he gave lectures on History, Astronomy and the Millennium and advanced education for women, and joined the Masons. He wrote home that he was tottering on the grave and never expected to be well until he was well in heaven. He lived 16 years after that.
In the fall of 1823 he went to Charleston, S.C. the first of several visits, in the mild climate there he felt that his health improved. He traveled the long distance by stage as he had such a dread of the boat trip.
While in Charleston he received a letter from his old friend Rev. Dr. Tenney, minister of Wethersfield, urging him to move his Seminary to Wethersfield and inviting him to stop on his way north and see the town.
Mr. Emerson must have been pleased with Wethersfield for he bought the house at 133 Main St. and leased the “commodious Academy building”, for his school.
He gave up preaching and devoted his time to teaching and writing when he came to Wethersfield. Many of his pupils followed him here, there were over one hundred boarding students to be accommodated. Scarcely a family in the center of the town but had one or two boarders. He used the upstairs hall in the Academy for his school, but the town reserved the right to use it for town meetings. Mr. Emerson had to keep the downstairs windows in repair. After 1830 he paid an annual rental of $10. The lease was for five years.
He published a little pamphlet in 1826 on the Prospectus of the Female Seminary, printed by Alfred Francis at the corner of Garden and Main Street. A copy of this pamphlet is the library of the Historical Society.
The course of study is outlined. They taught reading, Chirography, Arithmetic, Geography, Grammar, Rhetoric, Composition, History, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Intellectual Philosophy, Logic, Education and Theology. Most of the young ladies were expected to devote some attention to Pronunciation, Spelling, Defining, Fan Making, Geometry, Drawing, Astronomy, Cronology and Exegesis.
“If any young lady should find her lessons too easy she may devote her spare moments either to reading and consulting such works as may conduce to give her a more thorough and extended view of the branches to which she attends or she may be advanced to a higher class or have extra studies.”
There were three classes, Senior, Middle and Junior. A Preparatory School was taught by Mrs. Emerson and Nancy to prepare young ladies for the Seminary. Price of instruction and fuel for this school was 42 cents a week. Price of board for pupils was $1.50 per week not to include fuel, washing and light. Price of tuition was $7.00 per term payable in advance. There were two terms of 14 weeks each, with two weeks vacation between.
There were 26 rules or regulations specified, some were as follows:
* That they regularly and seasonably attend both exercises of public worship on the Sabbath.
* That they do not spend any part of that sacred day in visiting or unnecessarily walking or riding abroad.
* That they do not go more than two miles from the Seminary Hall without permission.
We can realize that Mr. Emerson’s schools gained a reputation for system, accuracy and thoroughness. Far and wide he spread before the public mind the importance of educa
tion for women.
His study at his home contained his many books, charts, maps and several inventions of his own to assist in his work. His right wrist always troubled him after his illness in Beverly, so he invented for his own use a system of shorthand.
In 1829 he made another trip to Charleston. He thought the milder climate was of benefit to him. After that he was more feeble until his death in 1833, aged 56 years.
Dr. Tenney was so feeble that Dr. Hawes of Hartford officiated at the funeral.
Mr. Emerson is buried in our old burying ground. His monument was erected as
Of Grateful Affection
A number of former Pupils.
The lease on the school building expired in 1836. Mrs. Emerson then transferred the school to her home. She needed another teacher so she wrote to Zilpath Grant in Ipswich and Miss Grant sent Harriet Webster who had been one of her pupils. Miss Webster was the mother of Emma Kimball Clark founder of our club and grandmother of Mrs. John S. Buck.
She taught a year in Mrs. Emerson’s school. I have had the privilege of reading a letter which she wrote home that winter to her family in Ipswich. She says nothing of the school only that she likes the situation. She wrote that she had never been in a place where the society was so good. The ladies she had met were agreeable and intelligent and attentive to strangers.
She spoke of grandmother Deming and her daughter who lived in a pretty home near the meeting-house and of the cold weather that winter. Thirty years ago Mrs. McLean (a very elderly lady who lived where Mrs. Pratt lives now) read the letter and she wrote Mrs. Clark that she remembered the Emerson Schools and she said Miss Webster referred to Mrs. Henry Deming and her Daughter Demeter, their home was the house that was now the bank. At the time they lived alone. Mrs. McLean was often there when a girl. The north rooms were never opened, the house was very bare and it seemed as if the big rooms were haunted by ghosts, she wrote.
There were many Wethersfield girls in these schools. One who came every day from South Wethersfield, probably in 1829 or 30 to Mrs. Emerson’s School was Emily Adams, afterward Mrs. Franklin Griswold of Griswoldville, mother of Mrs. Edward Deming one of our members. Mrs. Deming has an album of her mother’s in which her girl friends wrote some very solemn verses in very fine perfect handwriting, which is the way Mr. Emerson wrote and is the way he trained his pupils.
This was one verse:
“May heaven send; life, health, and peace, to you, may you ne’er want a faithful friend sincere and true. And may afflictions sable cloud ne’er shade your tranquil sky,
But thousand blessings round you crowd, While rolling years pass by.”
From your sincere friend
Newington, Sept. 9, 1836
Imagine a girl of today writing that in an album. I think Mrs. Deming selected that verse because I am the writer’s niece and namesake. The two girls were own cousins and the younger sister of one attended Mrs. Emerson’s school a few years later. She was Emeline Wells and she came in from Wells Quarter. She married Chauncey Harris, he was a teacher too and a school in Hartford bears his name. Their daughter Miss Mary Harris is one of our club members.
Mrs. Emerson kept the school about ten years, then in 1844 she sold the house and the family left Wethersfield.
The club has already voted to establish a permanent memorial fund for Mrs. Clark to commemorate this Tercentenary year, but I hope that we can also have a float in the parade in June. That is why I have told you the story of the Emerson School, and because we have such a connection with those school’s [sic] through our founder, Mrs. Clark, and two members of our club I suggest that we impersonate the Joseph Emerson School for the celebration.
Additional Remarks by John Oblak
The two Emersons, Joseph and Ralph Waldo, were distant cousins. Their common ancestor, Rev. Joseph Emerson (1620-1680), came from Hertfordshire, England to Concord, Massachusetts. A calling to the ministry ran in the family. Rev. William Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather, pastor of First Parish in Concord, figuratively stood at Concord Bridge during the Battle of Concord and Lexington. Joseph studied for the ministry at Harvard around 1800. Ralph Waldo Emerson also went to Harvard Divinity School and was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829.
The two Emersons were a generation apart in age – Joseph Emerson (1777-1833) versus Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) – and likely also in philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned his ministry in 1832 because of dissatisfaction with the direction his church was taking. This was the time of the Second Great Awakening, described as a reaction against religious skepticism, deism, and rational Christianity. Many joined evangelical denominations with reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society. Joseph Smith published his “Book of Mormon” in 1830. Joseph Emerson gave up his ministry due to poor health; Ralph Waldo Emerson to pursue his Transcendentalist philosophy.
Both men suffered from bouts of ill-health. Facing poor health in 1826,
Ralph Waldo Emerson sought a warmer climate in Charleston, South Carolina. Still too cold there, he continued south to St. Augustine, Florida.
Joseph Emerson started to visit the milder climate of Charleston, South Carolina in the fall of 1823 and continued until near his death.
Joseph Emerson’s Female Seminary was unique for Wethersfield; but it had precedents nearby. Sarah Pierce founded the Litchfield Female Academy (1792-1833) as a counterpart to the Litchfield Law School. While one can think of this as a “finishing school”, Sarah Pierce had higher aspirations.
She sent her nephew, John Pierce Brace, to Williams College to receive
training in teaching the “higher branches” of mathematics and science. He
returned the school as Sarah Pierce’s assistant in 1814, teaching there
until 1832 when he left to take over the Hartford Female Academy, which had been founded by his former student Catharine Beecher.
A nearby utopian community experiment had addressed other aspects of female emancipation. Ann Lee had visited Enfield in 1781 and supported the founding of a Shaker Village there. The Enfield Shaker community reached its zenith during the first half of the 19th century. There was also a Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts, nearby to Amos Bronson Alcott’s ill-fated Fruitlands utopian community in 1843.
Amos Bronson Alcott was born in Wolcott, Connecticut, a descendant of the famed Bronson family. The Bronsons, staunch Puritans, came to Hartford with Reverend Hooker. They then moved on to found Farmington. A Bronson grandson founded Waterbury. Somehow, after an elapse of time, Amos Bronson Alcott was raised an Episcopalian. While his daughter Louisa May is more famous, Bronson Alcott gained notoriety and controversy as a children’s education
innovator with his Temple School in Boston (1834-1841).
Alcott failed quickly at Fruitlands; but other Transcendentalist utopian
communities such as Brook Farm (
1841-1847) in West Roxbury, Massachusetts experienced short term success. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of its founders who then became disillusioned.
I cannot claim the extent, if at all, any of these external societal changes
influenced Joseph Emerson’s approach to female education. But there was
considerable ferment at the time. Much innovation and experimentation was underway.
A Brief History of the Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club of Wethersfield by Jim Meehan
The Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club of Wethersfield was organized on November 9, 1901 “to promote the intellectual and social culture of its members.” The founding officers were Mrs. George L. Clark (President), Miss Katherine C. Robbins (Vice President), Miss Elizabeth P. Andrews (Secretary) and Mrs. William Savage (Treasurer) who with Miss Harriet Stone, Mrs. Wilfred Savage and Mrs. Albert Arnold formed the club’s Executive Committee. The group met on alternate Saturdays at three o’clock from October through April. The speaker at the first meeting was Dr. Jane Robbins, Instructor in Obstetrics at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary and nationally known health advocate for the poor who talked about tenement life among the impoverished in New York City.
The Saturday Afternoon Club was a group firmly in the traditions of the “club movement” – begun after the Civil War and catching on around the turn of the century. Members of these associations were typically older women from the leisure class looking for intellectual challenge and culture. As such they became easy targets for satirists and jokesters – as in the play “The Music Man” where the mayor’s insufferable wife and her dowdy friends clumsily pranced and posed in an ode to a Grecian urn.
Two prototypical women’s clubs were founded in 1868 – “Sorosis” and the “New England Women’s Club” – founded respectively by Journalist Jane Cunningham Croly (better known by her pseudonym “Jennie June” and also founder of the New York Woman’s Press Club in 1889) and Julia Ward Howe (American abolitionist, social activist, poet, and the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). The two women traveled the country promoting the value of clubs administered and controlled by women. They envisioned women’s clubs as a means for women to become better educated while at the same time providing a way to improve society through voluntary community service.
Saturday Afternoon Clubs sprang up across the country. The beginning of one in Santa Rosa California in 1894 is described as follows.
“The town was awash in “ladies’ clubs” in that era, most with the sole function of planning afternoon card parties and get-togethers held at member’s homes; a Press Democrat columnist guessed there were about 100 women’s clubs, lodges and societies then in Santa Rosa. But no cards were shuffled at meetings of the Saturday Afternoon Club, where women might discuss a member’s report on military tensions in Asia or listen to an amateur soprano from the club’s Etude section warble through a program of Schubert lieder.”
In a history of the Wethersfield’s Saturday Afternoon group written for its 25th anniversary celebration member Mrs. James R. Anderson describes the group’s early days.
“Club ways were new to most of our Wethersfield women, especially when the club meeting were held in a chapel, and a certain reserve and stiffness was noticeable. Hoping to overcome this, three of the ladies, Mrs. George Buck, Mrs. Edward Buck, and the Misses Robbins, opened their houses to the club. Although interesting papers and fine music were given, no manifestations of pleasure were shown. All sat quite still in their chairs and spoke in subdued voice, to the despair of their hostesses, who had planned a social hour. New England reserve is hard to overcome. It is quite different now, you will say. Yes – quite different.”
The meetings usually contained a musical performance (normally classical) plus speakers on travel or current affairs, or the presentation of short plays and readings. Tea was served at each gathering.
The organization also published several books, among them “Some Old Wethersfield Houses and Gardens” by Henry Sherman Adams, and is mentioned in “The Ancestry of Frederick Spencer Bliss” by Frederick Spencer Bliss.
Former Presidents of the organization include: Mrs. Hugh A. Dryhurst, Lucy D. Wilson, Mary E. Welles, Mrs. Theodore W. Hannum, Mrs. George Stronach, Mrs. H. Edward James, Mrs. Oscar A. Phelps, Mrs. Seymour E. Williams, Mrs. J. Burritt Griswold, Mrs. James R. Goodrich and Mrs. Charles H. Hanmer.
The Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club of Wethersfield was dissolved in 1967 and was honored in that year’s Wethersfield Town Report. “The outstanding organization gift of the year came from the Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club. The club has turned over to the library $462.66 which remained in the treasury when it disbanded this year to be set up as a trust in memory of Mrs. Emma Kimball Clark.
As Frances Wells Fox wanted, the group did have a float in the town’s Tercentenary parade in June 1934 on which they impersonated the Joseph Emerson Seminary for Women. That float and the rest of the festivities can be seen in the video of that celebration available on the Historical Society website.