Paying for Private School Tuition in the 1730s

The Princeton class of 2019 has just graduated and cleared out of the dorms.  Next year’s crop of applicants for spots in the class of 2023 will be touring campus all summer. Parents’ nagging worries about the high costs for tuition and board are nothing new, however.  An imaginary case spun out of some advertisements in children’s books for private girls’ schools in the eighteenth century is an interesting way to put it all into perspective.

Suppose you are a merchant who traded in the Baltic region.   You recently lost your wife, and there is no one to supervised your lovely daughter Pamela when you are away on business for long periods of time.  As there are no reliable female relatives with whom she could live,a suitable boarding school must be found.

Copies of Gay’s Fables Epitomiz’d  (London: B. Creak, at the Red Bible near St. Paul’s [1733]) had advertisement for one such school in High  Wickham, Buckinghamshire.  The curriculum focused on what were considered accomplishments, or skills and attainments that were supposed to make girls attractive to eligible young men of means in need of wives.   Instruction in English and plain sewing, plus cutlery, and linens, were included in the basic quarterly charge of three pounds and fifteen shillings.  Pamela’s father would have to pay separate charges for laundry, board and instruction in fine needlework.  French, dancing, music, and writing lessons were all electives and it looks as if Papa had to pay the invoices of the different teachers directly.  Or perhaps the mistress of the school received the funds from parents and paid them on a quarterly basis, multiplied by the number of pupils for each teacher.If Pamela’s papa decides nothing is too good for his charming girl and signs her up for everything, then he would owe Mrs. Bellamy about ten pounds per quarter. This seems laughably low to us, but run the amount of forty pounds through a historic currency converter and the amount had about  the same purchasing power as $8200.00  in today’s currency.   Mrs. Bellamy was still a bargain, compared to a private high school…  But no matter how you cut it, the price of a silver spoon has inflated dramatically over two hundred and eighty six years…

If a book seems like a strange place to advertise an educational institution, there was method in the apparent madness.  Gay’s Fables Epitomiz’d was intended to be used in schools and its author was Daniel Bellamy the elder, the husband of Martha Bellamy, head of the school above.  Bellamy’s sister Hannah Wood was also a school mistress and sometimes Martha and Hannah joined forces and ran advertisements for their academies in other works produced by Daniel, like Dramatic Pieces and other Miscellaneous Works, which featured plays he wrote for the young ladies to perform at school.  This is not as cynical and calculating as it may seem at first, because Daniel Bellamy was a devout Christian with a genuine interest in education who used his literary gifts to write a number of excellent works for young readers, which were also  nicely illustrated with engravings.  He is an interesting, but little known pioneer in the history of English-language children’s books whose long career overlapped with those of the better-known Thomas Boreman, Mary Cooper, and John Newbery.