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Mystic Hall Seminary.

by Mrs. Jennie Peirce Brigham.
[Read before the Medford Historical Society, March 7, 1908.]

SOME years ago, I read in a Medford paper an article relating to Mystic Hall Seminary, in which the writer doubted if any still lived who had attended that institution. At first, it was rather of a shock to me, for I did not realize that its existence was in so remote an era. Then, I consoled myself with the thought that the writer must be quite young if fifty years seemed so far away and the institution merely a tradition. If so, I must surely be one of ‘the oldest inhabitants.’ Assuming this to be the case I bring to you some reminiscences of a pupil of the seminary.

I have been asked to give a sketch of what to some of you, especially the younger members, is merely an echo of the past (and, perhaps, not even that) of an educational institution which was located in West Medford during the fifties—Mystic Hall Seminary. From the elaborate prospectus issued by the proprietor I quote the following:

‘West Medford is fifteen minutes ride from Boston by the Lowell R. R., in the midst of an amphitheatre of hills, with lovely villages sleeping among them, while the Mystic river, from which the seminary takes its name, winding to the ocean, gives new beauty to the whole. Its proximity to Boston renders the superior talent of that city available to the pupils and the institute.’

Fifty years have brought many changes in West Medford, but not as many as might be expected. The village has become part of a city, churches have been erected, nomenclature of streets has changed, many stores have [p. 50] been opened (there was only a small one-room building in the seminary days, and that contained the post-office and a few groceries), and Medford pond has become Mystic lake. But the river still winds, and the tide still covers the marshes at its flood, although it has ceased to impress me with the idea, that then prevailed amongst us, that it was of great width.

Although now nearly covered with buildings, the area bounded by the River, the Lowell R. R., and High street was then a large, open, treeless field, which later was crossed by a wide path bordered by young trees, connecting one of the seminary buildings with the hall or school.

There was a large estate in West Medford at that time occupied by the family of Thomas P. Smith, the residence being on High street near the station. During the life of Mr. Smith, there was erected, upon the land adjoining his garden, a building the lower story of which was finished for a store, with rooms for a dwelling in the rear. The upper story consisted of a large hall used for fairs, social gatherings, and like purposes, called Mystic Hall. I am inclined to think, notwithstanding the prospectus, that the seminary took its name from the hall rather than from the river. After the death of Mr. Smith, the widow decided in 1854 to open a day and boarding school, or young ladies' seminary. At that time there was a private day school in West Medford, kept by an English family named Wood—a mother and two daughters— and also one in Medford, in the basement of the engine house of Jackson No. 2, kept by a Miss Chase.

There were already on the Smith estate two buildings suitable for school purposes, and, the town of Medford having built a new almshouse on Purchase street, the old one fronting on Canal street, with the Lowell R. R. closely in the rear, was purchased. The interior was entirely remodeled, and the general appearance of the outside changed by the addition of a long wing to one side for dormitories, and the house became Mystic Mansion. By [p. 51] crossing the railroad at the rear of the house, you entered the path of which I have already spoken that led to the school or hall. This building had also undergone a change. The store had been changed to a schoolroom, Everett Hall; the dwelling part into classrooms and studio. There was also a large barn on the estate, part of which was converted into a gymnasium and bowlingalley. These additions and improvements having been completed, Mystic Hall Seminary opened its doors on February 5, 1855.

The visiting committee was composed of some of the most prominent men in Massachusetts—judges, clergymen, physicians, senators, poets, and presidents of universities. Women were not ignored, although their higher education was not much talked of then. I think we were commencing to leave (slowly to be sure) the ‘clinging vine’ period, which attitude was then considered the proper one for women. However that may be, I find on the list the names of Mrs. Sigourney and Grace Greenwood (Mrs. Lippincott). Among their male associates were Rt. Rev. Manton Eastburn, D. D., Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts; President Walker, of Harvard; President Sears, of Brown; Judge Bigelow, of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; Hon. Rufus Choate; Rev. Dr. Lothrop, pastor of Brattle Square Church of Boston; Hon. Charles Sumner; Henry W. Longfellow; Father Taylor, of the Seamen's Bethel; Dr. D. Humphreys Storer; Gen. John S. Tyler; and others, too numerous to mention. I find that all the different religious denominations were represented, save the Roman Catholic, and I have not the slightest doubt that if Mrs. Smith had started her school fifty years later, Cardinal Gibbons would have appeared on the board, for she was very energetic and persuasive.

Among the instructors were John P. Marshall, A. M., of Tufts College, Ancient Languages; Charles J. White, also of Tufts, Mathematics; Professor Viaux, of Harvard, French; Winslow Lewis, M. D., Anatomy, Physiology, [p. 52] and Hygiene; Professor Papanti, nephew of the famous Papanti, Dancing; and Rev. Edward J. Stearns, Chaplain. The last was looked on with distrust by the younger pupils, being the compiler of a spelling-book in use at the seminary. His duties were not confined to the chaplaincy, as he was instructor in moral science and ancient languages. The principal taught natural science, composition, and belles-lettres. Professor Papanti was succeeded by others, among them Professor Bell, who taught steps and played the violin while so doing. He used the bow to point out deficiencies and rap toes, and he was very graceful in deportment, if not in language, for his denunciations of awkward pupils were scathing. Another was James Sullivan who brought a harpist and pianist to play for his classes. I must not forget little Mile. Fauscave, the resident French teacher, for she was patient and painstaking, and her surroundings could not have been happy.

The Norfolk (Virginia) Herald, 1855, says:—

‘We take pleasure in calling the attention of our readers to Mystic Hall school, near Boston; particularly of those who, having daughters whom they desire to have educated abroad, are interested in obtaining information of the best schools to send them to. The branches of instruction at the Mystic Hall embrace all that is necessary to a finished education, not only as regards mental culture, but all those graces and exterior accomplishments which befit the woman who is destined to shine in the highest sphere of dignity and refinement, or to fill a more useful but not less dignified position in society. The high character of the principal, Mrs. T. P. Smith, is a guarantee forthe unexceptional government of the school.’

To her pupils, Mrs. Smith appeared a very gracious woman, of fine address, kindly, sympathetic, and dignified. Her dress on special occasions was always the same —black velvet and lace, with pearl brooch and earrings, ropes of pearls, that we hear so much of now, were not so common then. [p. 53]

I can best give you an idea of what Mystic Hall aimed to be by quoting from the catalogues of the school. The poetry I shall read was composed by the principal. The Boston Intelligencer, in 1856, speaks of her ‘as a poet, with attainments of the highest order.’ She also wrote the hymn used at the opening of the school hours.

The plan of education comprises four departments; the Physical, the Moral, the Mental, and the Graceful.

A cultivated mind and elevated morality will accomplish little with a sickly constitution, consequently, physical education is placed first. [This has since come to be recognized by all educators.]

To the moral department, comprising not only integrity of character and Christian morals, but what is equal and of more importance, is added an amiable and loving spirit.

In future years from lowly hearth
     Soft gentle eyes will beam,
And light of woman's truest worth
     From household circles gleam.

In patience, hope, meekness and love,
     Woman's appointed lot,
With ever glancing eye above
     From mansion or from cot.

The mental comes third. In this department those teachers and professors are employed who have a tact for teaching, as well as great erudition in their respective departments.

The graceful department comprises music, painting, drawing, dancing, manners, carriage, and conversation generally. The young ladies are encouraged to converse with each other, in a lady-like and dignified manner, and in every way qualify themselves for whatever station they may be called upon in the future to fill,

While health a certain charm imparts,
And cultured minds and gentle hearts, [p. 54]
Will their possessor ever win
Respect and love and all akin.

Yet grace and beauty, too, are given,
To cheer us on our path to Heaven.
Let graceful mien and charming word
Then beckon on to joy and God.

This last line was altered in the next catalogue to

‘Their powerful influence afford.’

We had the best of instructors procurable, and if we did not become physically, morally, mentally, and gracefully proficient the blame must not rest on the teachers. It was claimed, and admitted, I believe, that this was the only seminary in the country where the two branches of physical education, swimming and horsemanship, were taught.

To produce experts in the former branch, swimming, three bath-houses were built on the river-bank near the old lock of the Middlesex Canal—another tradition? Well, in those days, there was just enough water in the canal to make skating in winter. It was quite a little walk from the school. One had to go down Canal street, cross the railroad, and continue on to a gate, through that down a short declivity, then climb up the rocks by the side of the old lock and run down rather a steep path. I trust that old Mystic is still salt at high tide, it was then, and that was the swimming hour. I do not remember any expert swimmer, save, perhaps, a pupil from Cuba. The others confined their feats to holding on to a rope secured to the steps, and jumping up and down. None ventured far toward the aqueduct as many large snapping-turtles were caught there, and we were often prevented from ranging farther up by the seines being set on certain days by the menhaden fishermen.

For horsemanship there were four horses. Fairy was a small mare that one could only mount by rushing down [p. 55] the steps and vaulting into the saddle, while William, the hostler, coachman, and factotum in general, held her up to the steps. The other horses, Hunter, Gypsy, and Mayflower, remained quiet, which enabled the riders to mount gracefully and in the proper manner, provided William did not give one too strenuous a hand and toss her far over the off side. Gypsy, was a small, black horse, and a favorite with all, but Hunter was always Hobson's choice, high, angular, and lame in one hind leg. If he galloped he rode comparatively easy, but to stop him one had to rise in the stirrup, brace against the pommel, and saw his mouth with the check, and then, when he settled into a trot, one wished she had never tried to stop him. Mayflower, a fine large mare, was only allowed to be used by a few of the older pupils, as she was usually reserved for the principal.

I find that in 1857 there were sixty pupils. I think the school opened with three. They came from many states, about fifty per cent. from Massachusetts. All the New England States were represented, and also the Middle, with the exception of Delaware (which brings to mind a remark I once heard from a man who had travelled extensively in the United States, that he had never met a person from Delaware). Virginia, Ohio, District of Columbia were represented, and there was one from Cuba and another from Canada. Those from Cleveland, Ohio, were looked upon almost as coming from the antipodes.

Everyone was expected to attend morning prayer in the schoolroom, but expectations were not always realized, the pupils residing at Mystic Mansion not liking the distance on a cold morning. We attended whatever church our parents desired, and were conveyed to and from the edifice in a brightly painted omnibus, with the name, Mystic Hall Seminary, lettered on the sides near the top. I hope some one here remembers that omnibus; it would make me feel a little less like the ancient mariner. It was drawn by a heavy horse, called Buckskin. [p. 56] This horse, when allowed to be driven in other vehicles by the pupils, had to be managed by two pairs of hands to keep him in the road, as he had a most unpleasant habit of running sideways toward the gutter or wall. We unkindly diagnosed this peculiarity as ‘blind staggers.’

The course of study was composed as follows: First, a preparatory course for young pupils. And let me add here, that although the seminary was originally intended for what was termed a ‘finishing school,’ I read ‘that so many young ladies presented themselves for finishing touches when the outlines of an education were not plainly discernible, it was thought best to receive the little misses, and ere long a class would graduate thoroughly educated, as well as elegant and graceful.’ The Intermediate and Collegiate Departments were divided into Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior years; also an optional course and resident graduate course.

Under music, came singing, piano, guitar and harp. The violin, or fiddle, was not taught, being deemed unfeminine. Under painting was included oil and water color, crayon and head drawing, Grecian and Oriental painting, papier mache, monochromatic, potichiomania, wax fruit and flowers, inlaying of pearl, and leather work. It may seem strange for me to combine these under painting, but I have done so because ‘M and P,’ music and painting, or ‘M’ or ‘P’ singly, were affixed to the pupil's name in the catalogue to signify the extra accomplishments taken. ‘M’ might mean piano, harp, and guitar—all three or merely one. ‘P’ stood for any or all that I have enumerated under painting, but it generally stood for Grecian painting.

Mrs. Smith was quite an artist in oils, and had made a number of family portraits. I will add for the information of the younger, and perhaps some of the older ones present, to whom Grecian painting is unknown, that it was accomplished in the following manner: A steel engraving or lithograph was saturated with water and stretched. When dry it was like a drumhead, and [p. 57] was then varnished on the back until it became transparent. Oil paints were applied on the reverse, and no shading was necessary, that being supplied by the original. It was merely the coloring of a print to suit the fancy. It was an economical as well as rapid style of painting, as all the paint remaining on the palette was mixed together and used as background. A little touch of paint on the face of the picture was sometimes added, then a thin coat of varnish, and it was ready for the frame —or the rubbish pile, as one chose.

I was a Grecian painter, and at times feel rather elated at having been an adept in one of the lost arts. Quite a number of pupils took lessons in wax fruit and flowers, or rather fruit, for that was moulded and easily made, while flowers required a more skilled touch. Sometimes in the country I have seen funeral wreaths which the unsuspecting owner has assured me was the original wreath preserved in wax. How vividly this brought back to me the days of wax work in the studio.

A monthly report was made out for each scholar regarding her proficiency in lessons and deportment. I think the daily school life could be summed up in a general way, as prayers, 7; breakfast, 8; school, 9; intermission, 12 to 12.30; dinner, 2; music and painting in the afternoon; tea, 6; study hour together, 7 to 8; conversation in music-room parlor, 8 to 9; lights out at 10.

It is needless to say that lessons were memorized, by this I mean every word in geography or history must be letter perfect, particular stress being laid on rules in arithmetic and grammar; and a method was employed by a teacher in geography that I have never seen elsewhere, although it may have been used. Very large maps were hung on the wall, and the teacher named the rivers, mountains, capes, or whatever might be the day's lesson, and pointed them out, while the pupils chanted them after her in a sing song rhythm. This brings forcibly to mind the way we learned our multiplication table in the public school, each table being sung with a terminating [p. 58] chorus of ‘Five times Five is Twenty-five,’ to the air of Yankee Doodle.

French was always spoken at table, therefore, we were not a particularly garrulous crowd, the conversation being limited to asking for the desired articles or requesting to be excused when the dessert was not especially popular. Then the order went forth that all young ladies who wished to be excused must ask before the dessert was served. Great consternation arose among the younger ones, until it was discovered that by gaining the good graces of the cook, under a pledge of secrecy, the day's dessert could be foretold.

I have already mentioned that there was a large, wellequipped gymnasium and bowling alley connected with the school, and the suits worn on those occasions were what were known as ‘bloomers,’ although some preferred to call them ‘Turkish costumes.’ I have never visited a modern gymnasium, but the various exercises we had were sufficiently startling, and near neck-breaking among the younger ones if no teacher were near.

Those pupils boarding at Mystic Mansion were obliged to cross the railroad, and then take the wide walk through the field which led to the school. During the noon hour a long frieght train used to switch off and back down the track opposite the mansion to wait for the Lowell express to pass. As there was a stringent rule that the pupils must not leave the seminary grounds without permission, the younger ones used to crawl under the cars, and it was quite a stump (I believe it is called ‘stunt’ now) to crawl under when we could hear the clink as each car began to move. What saved us from mutilated limbs I do not know, unless it was the same cherub that used to sit up aloft and look out for the life of poor Jack, said cherub no longer being needed in these days of steam. When this pleasant pastime of ‘crawling under’ was discovered, and the culprits admonished and told into what depths of sin they had fallen, the excuse was that they were afraid they would be late for lessons.

To acquire a graceful carriage (which as I read you [p. 59] was one of the attributes which ‘beckon on to joy and God’) we had calisthenics, using first a wand, then swaying graceful movements with arms and hands to the piano accompaniment of the Russian March. This selection was invariable, the air was never changed.

Embroidery was taught by the resident German teacher. There was cross-stitch on canvas worked so finely that it resembled tapestry. There were ottoman covers worked on broadcloth, chenille embroidery that very few attempted, and the height of all ambition, the working of a large figure picture in tapestry that could be framed. The favorite subject of this composition was a Highlander and a lamb.

We had our secret societies with badges and letters that were exasperating to the uninitiated who could not discover their significance. There were the ‘L. G's,’ with knife and fork engraved on their buttons. Lazy Geese they were called by the younger girls, in retaliation for the name of ‘small fry,’ which had been applied to themselves. The ‘C. C's.’ bore a sunburst, and were dubbed the ‘Celestial Captivators.’ The ‘R. D's,’ said their letters meant Reform Dress, but as we could not see any reform in dress or manners, we gave them silent contempt. The seniors had a resplendent button, with the Greek letters phi, sigma, phi, that silenced us. Such learning was beyond criticism!

All these minor societies were eclipsed by the Mystic Alliance, which included all that were eligible by age, sometimes otherwise. It was termed a literary society, and issued a monthly paper called, The Mystic Wreath. One or two young Harvard sophomores were allowed to join the Alliance. I only know of one now living, and he is a well-known writer and educator. The ‘small fry’ were not recognized by these haughty college men, but the ‘small fry’ had eyes and ears, and they used them to advantage.

At the end of the term (there were two terms in the year) there was a reunion. I saw in the Medford paper to which I have referred, a copy of an order of exercises [p. 60] which you probably all read. These exercises commenced at three o'clock. The graduating class had the usual salutatory in Latin followed by reading in French, German and Spanish, English essay and the valedictory, while the other pupils aided to the best of their ability. Then came award of prizes, given by some of the visiting committee, and the presentation of a gold medal to each graduate. If the reunion came in June, and the weather permitted, a collation was served under the trees in the garden, and a number of pupils showed their proficiency in horsemanship. In the early evening there was a concert given by the pupils, which was followed by social enjoyment and band playing.

I have made mention of the possession of ears and eyes by the small fry. The following is what they heard and saw on one Saturday afternoon. It was the usual custom for the principal to go to Boston on that day, and some of the Harvard members of the Alliance thought it an excellent opportunity for calling. On this particular Saturday, however, for some reason or other Mrs. Smith had remained at home, and word reached her that there were visitors for certain young ladies. The principal received the visitors with a very gracious manner, and asked of what service she might be. One stammered out, ‘We have come to inspect the institution.’ ‘Delighted,’ was the reply. They were taken over the various rooms of the school and studio, and entertained until they showed flagging interest, when, with thanks for the courtesy, they took their departure.

Mystic Hall Seminary only existed in West Medford from February, 1855, to June, 1859. In the winter of 1858, Mrs. Smith visited Washington, having influential friends there. This was before the strenuous life in America, and she believed that the time had come in that city for an educational school on the basis of Mystic Hall Seminary. This plan was carried into operation, and in the fall of 1859 she opened her school at the capital. Two or three of her graduate teachers accompanied her. She could not have chosen a more unfavorable time. The [p. 61] John Brown excitement culminated within a few months after the opening of the school. A spirit of uneasiness pervaded the entire country, especially the south, from whence she expected to draw her pupils, and the school was soon closed.

Four years is a brief time for an educational institution to exist, not long enough to make a deep impression on a community. If I have given you a glimpse of what one boarding school life was fifty years ago, I have done all, and perhaps more, than I expected. The founder and principal of the seminary had the highest hopes of its stability and success, and in these hopes and beliefs she was supported by the press and friends in many states. As I quoted from the Norfolk Herald at the beginning of my paper, let me end with a quotation from one published at Boston at this time.

Among the proudest boasts of New England, none may be more justly indulged than those referring to our admirable schools. We have the means of education profusely scattered upon every side; and while our public institutions deserve especial commendation, there exist private ones most eminently adapted to public wants, and meeting exigencies which cannot otherwise be reached. The comparative value of the physical and mental education can be more happily advanced under the circumstances which attend a private institution than in a general and public one.

The mothers of Columbus and Washington will never be forgotten, and to produce such mothers should be the highest aim of the age, and so indeed it is in such schools as the one to which we take great pleasure in making reference, known as the School for Young Ladies, at Mystic Hall, West Medford, Mass.

Mrs. Smith has surrounded herself with the best procurable talent in every branch, and to Mystic Hall school we shall ever point with highest pride of a true New Englander.

New England has long since forgotten the brief life of Mystic Hall Seminary. Let Medford remember.

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