Friday, August 22, 2014

French, botany and a debate on socialism: Just another week at Miss Dana's School for Young Ladies

Today it's the site of a wine store, but back in the day, 163 South Street in Morristown hosted one of the nation's most progressive educational institutions for young women. No historical markers commemorate the site, but Miss Dana's School for Young Ladies deserves note as an incubator for independent thought for women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I wish I could say I discovered Miss Dana's totally on my own, but getting there was more like a scavenger hunt than a field trip. Our friend Joe Bilby, co-author of 350 Years of New Jersey History, From Stuyvesant to Sandy, mentioned Dorothy Parker's birthday as one of the historical nuggets he regularly posts on the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey Facebook page. Research on the Algonquin Round Table wit led to Miss Dana, but more on that connection later.

As we learned when we stumbled on the site of the Bordentown Female College, women's education in 19th century America generally took one of two routes. Some of the institutes, seminaries or colleges founded exclusively for girls focused on the type of higher education that we're familiar with today. Others were basically finishing schools that prepared daughters of wealthy parents for their entry into polite society, teaching manners, literature and the culinary arts so they could have a decent conversation with their future husbands and neighbors.

Despite the impression you might get from its innocent-sounding name, Miss Dana's School was a serious educational institution. The property on South Street was originally home to the more studious-sounding Morris Female Institute but became Miss Dana's when Elizabeth Dana leased it in 1877 after leaving her English and French Boarding School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. What happened to the Female Institute isn't clear, but if the scathing assessment provided by Rutgers Professor G.W. Atherton is any indication, it didn't live up to its scholarly name. (Either that, or Atherton made a hobby of exposing self-professed educators who consistently employed bad grammar and paltry vocabulary.)

Miss Dana's proved popular with prominent families, both in New Jersey and around the country. Classes were small, limited to 15 girls taught in seminar style to assure personal attention. Students learned the classics -- Greek, Latin, literature, history and the Bible -- in addition to mathematics and hard sciences like chemistry and physics. Botany, psychology, studio art, music, logic and other electives were also available to round out the students' education. Noted scholars visited the school to lecture on current events and politics; in fact, Reverend William Griffis, one of the first Americans to travel extensively to Japan, came to the school to share his impressions of the East. (You might recall we "met" Rev. Griffis through our research on the Japanese graves in New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery.)

Parents could send their daughters to Miss Dana's with the assurance that if the girls took to their studies, they'd be assured a path to further success at one of the nation's top women's colleges. Graduating from her school meant an automatic acceptance to Vassar College, with no other entrance requirements necessary.

Unlike her predecessors at the Morris Female Institute, Miss Dana had a penchant for excellence that transcended the classroom. As one indication, in 1893 the school became the first in the state to hire a resident nurse. Marietta Burtis Squire was at the top of her field; at other points in her career she was the first president of the State Board of Examiners for Nurses and Superintendent of the Orange Memorial Hospital.

Elizabeth Dana died in April 1908, having prepared a few hundred women for higher education and productive lives. The school closed four years later, but her legacy lives on. Just after her death, students and alumnae endowed a reading prize in her name at Vassar, which the college continues to award to the student who undertakes and completes the best independent reading project over their summer break.

So what's the connection to Dorothy Parker, poet, author and satirist? Born in Long Branch as Dorothy Rothschild, she lived with her family in Manhattan but boarded at Miss Dana's after a stint at a Catholic school in the city. (She joked that she was encouraged to leave after characterizing the immaculate conception as "spontaneous combustion.") She graduated in 1911 as part of the school's last class. Her biographer, Arthur F. Kinney, suggests that the education Parker got in the Morristown school may have influenced her worldview and political interests. As he notes, the weekly current events discussions during her senior year "focused on such themes as exploitation in the slums, reports of muckrakers, and the growth of the Socialist party." The final issue of the school paper before her graduation included articles on child labor in American sweatshops and U.S. expansion in the Pacific region.

One has to wonder how many other girls' schools in that day were encouraging that kind of discussion. While finishing schools taught young women how to conduct a pleasant conversation, Miss Dana encouraged her students to think for themselves. She was well ahead of her time.

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