A History of the Litchfield Female Academy

Sarah Pierce and the Litchfield Female Academy

THE LITCHFIELD FEMALE ACADEMY was one of a small group of early schools that played a critical role in shaping later educational, social and economic opportunities for women in the United States. Through her innovative curriculum, the school’s founder Sarah Pierce transformed the lives of the more than 3,000 women who attended the school. Over its forty-one year history, from 1792-1833, the Litchfield Female Academy attracted students from fifteen states and territories, Canada, Ireland and the West Indies.

Elizabeth Canfield and a globe used at the Academy

The academic curriculum at the Female Academy reflected Sarah Pierce’s belief that women and men were intellectually equal. Pierce continuously improved and expanded her academic curriculum, offering many subjects rarely available to women, including logic, chemistry, botany and mathematics. At the same time, Pierce experimented with innovative ways to unite the academic and ornamental subjects. Students drew and painted maps and made charts of historical events to reinforce geography and history lessons.


clockwise from upper left:
“The Sailor Boy Relating the Story of His Shipwreck to the Cottage
Family” watercolor by Lucy Sheldon, 1801;
“Grapes” watercolor by Jerusha Bockee, ca. 1828;
“Pointing the Neophyte Toward the City of Knowledge” watercolor
by Lucretia Champion, 1805;
“Malvina” embroidered picture by Lucy Masters, 1808.

Students also illustrated poetry, literature, and mythological and biblical readings with elaborate embroideries and detailed watercolor paintings. Botany and natural history lessons were often illustrated with watercolor drawings.

Although primarily interested in a strong academic curriculum, Sarah Pierce knew that teaching the ornamental subjects was critical to the success of her school. In the 18th century, most wealthy parents were willing to invest in a son’s education because it increased his chances of pursuing a profitable career. For young women, advanced educational opportunities were few, and the ability of their families to pay the high cost of an education became a symbol of wealth. The decorative paintings and needleworks made by the girls at female academies were hung in formal parlors as proof of family prosperity. Learning dancing, music, foreign languages, art and other ornamental subjects was also important for those students who wanted to become teachers or start their own academies, as no school for young women would be successful without them.

Sewing box owned by Laura Wolcott; a watercolor palette

Sarah Pierce encouraged her students to become involved in benevolent and charitable societies. The Litchfield Female Academy students organized to support local missionary, bible and tract societies and raised money for the training of ministers. Many of the academy alumnae carried on these activities in later life, becoming leaders and ardent members of maternal societies, moral reform movements, and temperance societies. Most of the students went on to private lives devoted to their families. They spread Pierce’s ideals of Christianity, morality, education and character to their family and friends. Two of her students, sisters Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, transmitted these ideals to the nation as a whole by publishing manuals about parenting and housekeeping. The greatest influence Sarah Pierce had on the history of education was through the many young women she trained as teachers. While some of her students returned to teach at the Litchfield Female Academy, others went on to teach or establish schools throughout the nation.

To learn more about the school, please see the online finding aids for the Litchfield Female Academy and The Ledger, an online database containing biographical information about the students together with their artifacts and papers.