Education in Early Troy:1820s Note from Campus

Rensselaer County native and former Washington Park resident Nancy Edwards Casteras ’69 and her husband – an RPI alumnus – collect postcards, maps, engravings and photographs of Troy and its surroundings. They recently acquired a letter written by a young woman studying on Russell Sage’s campus when it was home to the Troy Female Seminary (the original name of the secondary school founded by Emma Willard).

Casteras estimates the letter was written in the early 1820s, since Emma Willard founded her school in 1821 and her husband – whose presence is acknowledged in the letter – died in 1825. The writer, Moll (a 19th Century nickname for Mary or Martha), is apparently writing to her sister Elizabeth, wife of Stephen Storm at a Hudson, Columbia County, N.Y. address. Casteras researched the 1820 and 1830 census records, and found there was a farmer Stephen Storm who lived in Claverack, married to an Elizabeth.  She died in 1838, but her maiden name is not immediately known. The letter has a Troy postmark, but predates stamps from the U.S. Post Office.

The text below is edited for punctuation. “There is no essentially no punctuation in the original, although the penmanship is beautiful,” said Casteras, adding that Moll ran out of room while writing and had to return to the first page to finish things up – the first line of the actual letter starts about a third of the way down the first page. “The comments about student life and the Troy environs are terrific,” said Casteras. “We found the letter content fascinating and haunting.” 

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Well dear Leib,

Likely you have learned that I have been very homesick, yes very homesick. After I had been here a short time, it commenced raining and continued to rain for two days. If there was anything which could add to my desolation it was this. I could not refrain from tears whenever I went to meals, or in the presence of Mrs. Willard. All the faces were strange. It seemed as if there was none to sympathize. But I am happy to say that at present I am much more contented.

The teachers are very kind, very affectionate; in fact I never saw among so many so well a selection of teachers. They are I believe 18 in number. The school I believe numbers about 120, including day scholars. About 60 of them are boarders, 20 servants, five children and a nurse; you see we have quite a comfortable family.

As it respects board we could not wish it better. We rise between the hours of half past five and half past six so we are not obliged to hurry ourselves to death about that. Then breakfast at seven, when we generally have meat, unless we have wheat cakes, good coffee and plenty of it, butter, molasses and sugar on pancakes if we wish it. We dine at one when our table is bountifully arranged. At tea we have no variety, but that meal is immaterial. I have had cake once since I have been here, Sabbath evening. It was not rich I assure you but it tasted good. At nine in the evening the bell rings and then we go below and receive a large piece of bread and a pitcher of water. Methinks I hear you say jail fare. It is, but it is extra, and if we got nothing of course we could not murmur.

I never saw a woman the equal to Mrs. Willard; she is so kind and may be classed with those of whom the world is unworthy. Dignified, handsome and extremely intelligent, she wins the affection of all that know her. Of Mr. Willard, I know but little. We see him at prayers. He is a man of few words, generally kind and polite.

These are some of the scholars here, the most mischievous you can imagine. If we walk the teacher accompanies us, but they contrive to run upon the stoops and ring the bells of the doors. Others fall behind and enter the confectionaries, which is strictly forbidden.

The school is in the greatest possible commotion at present. This evening Mrs. Willard gives a party. Oh dear, could I but leave this gay place and fly to your snug little home, I would be in ecstasies, but such happiness is not in store for me. I must appear in all the rusticity of an awkward country girl.

We were taken in the school room to practice ceremonies new entirely to me, and this evening, although I will be with them there, my heart will be with those I love. “What are you going to wear? What are you going to wear?” is all I hear!  My letter is full and I am not half through. Although I presume my foolishness is not interesting to you, it is a satisfaction to me — the only one I have left. We are not allowed to write letters excepting between times and the teachers think I am now writing a composition all the same.  

 Moll

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