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 have recently lost your wife, and as you must be away on business for long periods of time, there is no one to supervise your lovely daughter Pamela’s education.  There are no reliable female relatives with whom she could live, so 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, so to speak  extra 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 signed 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.


Stays and other Secrets of perfect Posture

People in eighteenth-century portraits hold their bodies as if they were dancers.  Even a squirmy toddler tenuously balanced on his mother’s knee has beautiful posture. Were those gracefully lifted torsos just an improvement of the painter, trying to please clients? Or should the subjects’ stays, the quilted corsets stiffened with whalebone that laced tight up the back, take some of the credit?

Stays weren’t just for for grown women.  Babies were put in unconstructed ones made of coarse fabric very young.  Providing support for their weak little spines may have been less important than accustoming them to wearing a garment that would become increasingly confining as they grew.  Little girls soon graduated to smaller versions of the form-molding garments and  were expected to wear them practically all the time because being laced up was supposed to convey a sense of modesty.  At least that was the advice of male authors of well-known guides to female behavior.  Because the stays held up the rib cage, the wearer’s ability to change the position of the torso was quite difficult.  In this illustration of a girl reading, she is so engrossed in a book that she forgets to maintain a good seated posture.  But she isn’t slumping.  Her torso is tilted over her lap and her shoulders are rounded, but her back looks straight, because the abdominal muscles cannot sag or collapse.  Wearing stays was only one aspect of a demanding “curriculum”  to manage the body.  This aspect of eighteenth-century education, which combined best medical practice, contemporary notions of beauty, and social aspiration to participate in fashionable society, finds expression in a book famous in the history of medicine, Nicolas Andry de Bois-Regard’s Orthopedia or the Art of Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Children  (1741).  d’Andry, who was the dean of the faculty of medicine in Paris, argued that a normal healthy body can develops deformities when its natural symmetry is compromised by civilized life.  (The previous illustration and all that follow are from Cotsen’s copy of the first edition of the English translation of 1744).

He pointed out things that sparked the process of bodily deterioration in infancy.   An ignorant nurse might lift a toddler up by the leading strings attached to the shoulders of its bodice, which allowed its heavy head to sag, strain the neck, and pull the shoulders out of alignment.  Children’s bodies could incur permanent damage when carelessly handled by adults playing infant amusements with them.  One of the most dangerous was one  called “going to visit grandfather”  in which the adult would  lift the child by its neck and swung it around, putting the spine at risk of dislocation.Furniture could be responsible for deforming children’s bodies.  The school boy below is writing on a surface that is too low, so he hunches over his work.  The other boy to his right is eating at a table that is too high, so he scrunches up his shoulders.When d’Andry talks about deformations of girls’ bodies, it is more difficult to determine i the relative importance of legitimate medical concerns, contemporary standards of beauty, and fashion, which strives to display the female body’s perfections.  The chest is the most beautiful part of the body, according to d’Andry, so he placed considerable emphasis on the proper training  of the thorax, or middle back, the arms, and clavicles.  One reason for this was to keep the chest open and promote healthy lung breathing.  He recommends various manipulations and exercises, including walking with a little box balanced on the top of the head.When the desired results could not be obtained through exercise, d’Andry did not hesitate to recommend that parents require their daughters to wear the contraption below in addition to stays.Was d’Andry aware that his program of physical discipline dovetailed with the dictates of fashion, where the bodice was the focal point of a dress because of the way it set off a girl’s head, shoulders and breast?  Possibly not, because the idea of posture in the Western world has never made clear and distinct demarcations between health and beauty with respect to the body.