“I am anxious to go to school next quarter.”
Lavinia Goodell, December 26, 1853
Lavinia Goodell was a sickly child and, as a result, had very little in the way of formal education until she and her parents moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1853. It has long been known that Lavinia graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a girl’s school, in 1858, but we have recently discovered that before matriculating there, she briefly attended two other schools. We do not know the names of these schools, but Goodell family letters describe her coursework and experience at these institutions.
Lavinia apparently did not commence school until early 1854 since in a letter written in late December of 1853 she told her sister, “I am anxious to go to school next quarter but don’t know where to go.” By February 1854, fourteen-year-old Lavinia had begun a course of study but was apparently not enthralled with all aspects of the instruction. Lavinia’s mother wrote to her elder daughter:
I am glad she is in school. Her teacher gives her words with the definition and wants her to write sentences and bring in those words. I cannot see any great advantages from that myself. L does not like it very well.
By the fall of 1854, Lavinia had changed schools and reported to her sister the new institution was “a better one, I think.” She said:
I have quite a number of studies. History, Astronomy, Geography, Grammar, Rhetoric, Familiar Science, Algebra, Arithmetic, Philosophy, “Botany, French & Drawing. I like them all very well so far, especially the French which I think is very interesting and much easier than I had any idea of…. The principal of the school is a French gentleman and we hear a great deal of French talk and are apt to get the right pronunciation…. We have reports to bring home once a week. I am so much interested in my school that I can scarcely speak of anything else. I mean, when I get farther advanced in French, to write you a letter in that language and then translate it, partly for my instruction and partly for your amusement.
In December 1854, Lavinia’s father proudly wrote to his elder daughter:
Lavinia is very much absorbed in her studies and is particularly interested in her French. We get French answers from her, in reply to our English questions…. Your mother was much afraid she would be behind the other girls in her studies, as she has been so long out of school. But I believe she has got, pretty well, over that trouble now. As near as we can learn, she is about the first in her class…. I imagine she excels most or all her associates, in her weekly compositions…. She has given them some varieties in that line – fairy stories, dialogues, familiar correspondence…. Her last was nothing less than a political letter to Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, M.C., berating him soundly for his course on the Nebraska bill – pretty fairly done, too. I think it will have amused the teachers, as it certainly did us.
(Read more about Lavinia’s letter to Senator Douglas here)
While the first schools Lavinia attended were within walking distance from her parents’ home in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Heights Seminary was five miles away and travelling there required her to take street cars in addition to walking a fair distance. Lavinia’s mother was always very concerned about her younger daughter’s feeble health and worried that the daily commute was more than Lavinia could tolerate, but Lavinia’s letters contain no hint of exhaustion. To the contrary, she seemed to love school and relished difficult assignments. In her last semester at Brooklyn Heights Seminary, she wrote to her sister:
You ask about my school compositions, and the subjects. Well, I have taken the popular side of “Women’s Sphere,” then, not to be partial, “Man’s Sphere,” also “Politics,” “Heaven” and lastly, “Castle Building.” We are studying Architecture, and our teacher Miss Hall proposed that we should draw plans of houses, followed by descriptions, then saying something about the furniture, and the portion of the world we would choose to live in. So I described my ideal home, and after indulging in some airy flights wound up describing the ideal “man of the house.” It was a daring feat, for Miss Hall is very dignified, but fortunately for me, it took with her.
Sadly, the school compositions mentioned no longer exist, so we can only speculate how Lavinia might have described her ideal “man of the house.” Based on her many later writings that do survive, it is probably safe to say that the “ideal man” would have viewed the woman of the house as his equal in all respects.
Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (December 26, 1853; October 23, 1854; ) Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (February 16, 1854); William Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost December 11, 1854); Life of Lavinia Goodell, unpublished biography by Maria Goodell Frost, contained in the William Goodell Family Papers at the Special Collections & Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.