June 26: Education Pioneer Sarah Pierce Born in Litchfield


On this day in 1767, education pioneer Sarah Pierce was born in Litchfield. As a teenager, her older brother sent her to New York after the death of her father, to learn to become a teacher so she could financially support herself and her siblings. Upon her return to Litchfield in 1792, Pierce opened one of the first female academies in the United States.

Sarah Pierce, circa 1825.

Pierce was passionate about nurturing girls’ moral, emotional, and intellectual development in full, leading to a curriculum that was much more rigorous than other academies of the period. Pierce’s school combined the study of natural science, geography, and history — subjects which were typically taught to young boys exclusively — with elements of traditional upper-class female education like the fine arts, including music, dancing, painting, and embroidery. Some of the finest surviving examples of early 19th century embroidery were produced from students attending the Litchfield Academy. An emphasis on proper morals and manners was also woven into the curriculum; students were expected to be clean, prompt, presentable, and polite at all times.

For two generations, the Litchfield Female Academy educated over 3,000 young women, as well as a number of young men, making it one of the largest and most successful academies in the history of the young United States. Among Pierce’s most famous alumnae were Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her sister Catherine, who would go on to found her own prominent female seminary in Hartford. Together with the nearby Litchfield Law School founded by Tapping Reeve (the first law school in the United States), Sarah Pierce’s Female Academy firmly established Litchfield’s reputation as a prominent center of education in the early 19th century, and set high educational standards for female academies throughout the new nation.

Further Reading

Peter Vermilyea, “Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Academy,” connecticuthistory.org

By the Virtue of its Citizens: Educating a New Nation at Sarah Pierce’s Academy,” Litchfield Historical Society

Sarah Pierce,” The Ledger, Litchfield Historical Society

America’s First Law School, Sarah Pierce’s Academy, and the Way We Mourned,” Grating the Nutmeg podcast