Saturday, December 29, 2012

Learning the social graces at Bordentown Female College

As we're closing 2012, I've been thinking about the places we've gone this year and the discoveries we've yet to share. Our summertime visit to Bordentown, for example, yielded a ton of great locations and potential Hidden New Jersey stories. Some were relatively easy to get to the bottom of, while others stayed frustratingly obscure.

The Bordentown Female College is one of the obscure ones. All that's left of it is a plaque and memorial fountain downtown, at the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Crosswicks Street, a few blocks from Clara Barton's school. There's no other explanation or context nearby, nor is there a structure attached to it, so I had to do a little digging.

Women-only education has an interesting history in America, with some of the earliest examples being "female seminaries" in the early and mid 1800s. Some focused on the type of higher education we're familiar with, while others were basically finishing schools that prepared young women from wealthy families for their entry in polite society. Literature and cultural arts may have been in the curriculum, but the primary purpose seems to have been turning out nice young ladies who were equipped to have a decent conversation at a dinner party.

Bordentown Female College seems to have been more the latter than the former. Founded as a boarding school by Methodist minister Rev. John Brakely in 1850, it was advertised as "an excellent school, in a healthy and accessible locality, under wise administration and reasonable in its charges." An 1880 brochure outlined its purposes as "1st. To make thorough, practical students. 2d. To improve their manners, morals and health. 3d. To provide a pleasant home." Parents were also comforted by the fact that "The young ladies enjoy the personal supervision and maternal care of the wife of the President, whose modest and amiable qualities command the affection of all."

The school was well-regarded among its peers, attracting a student body that drew largely from New York society. A July 1869 New York Times article on that year's commencement noted that "essays read by the young ladies evinced talent and culture, the music was artistic and all of the performances of the occasion were conducted in good taste..."

BFC's tenure was relatively short, as the school fell victim to the financial panic of 1893 and eventually closed altogether. One might also wonder if the gradual growth of nearby women's colleges like Bryn Mawr and its Seven Sisters counterparts might have drawn potential students away, as well. Either way, it appears that its alumnae regarded their Bordentown experience with fond memories, as their lovely 1914-era fountain still graces downtown.

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