June 26: Science and Embroidery Stitched Together in Litchfield


Today in 1767, education pioneer Sarah Pierce was born in Litchfield. Her father died when Sarah was a teenager, and as a result, the family was financially pressed. In response, Sarah’s brother sent her to New York to learn to be a teacher. Having acquired that ability, he thought, she would be able to financially support both herself and her siblings.

When Sarah returned to Litchfield in 1792, she 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 to its fullest capacity, so she created a curriculum that was much more rigorous than other female 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 aspects of traditional upper-class female education like music, dancing, painting, and embroidery. (Some of the finest surviving examples of early 19th century embroidery were produced by 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.

Over two generations, the Litchfield Female Academy educated over 3,000 young women, as well as a significant number of young men, making it one of the largest and most successful academies in 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 and lead a mid-19th-century effort to provide female teachers for the new settlements on the country’s western frontier.

In combination 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 as a prominent center of education in the new nation, and set high educational standards for female academies throughout the early American republic.

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