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Friday, June 9, 2023

An Instructor's Identity Revealed: Hannah Spofford and the Charlestown Academy


Fig. 1: Mourning embroidery wrought by Abigail Larkin (b. 1796), attributed to the Charlestown Academy, Hannah Spofford, preceptress, Charlestown, Mass., ca. 1810–1815. Silk and watercolor on silk, 24¼ x 22 inches. Collection of the authors. Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Galleries. Fig. 2: The Shepherdess of the Alps, wrought by Evelina Hull, at the Charlestown Academy, Hannah Spofford, preceptress, circa 1812. Silk and watercolor on silk, 18¼ by 16½ inches. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Joshua Marsden Van Cott (1939.126.1). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Schoolgirl academies, especially in New England, have been the subject of extensive investigation during the last ninety years. Pioneering researchers such as Ethel Bolton and Eva Coe, Glee Krueger, Jane Nylander, Joan Stephens, and especially Betty Ring have identified the major schools, their teachers and students, and the salient characteristics of the students’ output. New facts occasionally come to light, however, that allow us to connect a little-known school and the body of work its students created.

Our story begins in January 2008 during the Winter Antique Show in New York. At the booth of Hirschl and Adler we bought an outstanding schoolgirl memorial, signed by Abigail Larkin (Fig. 1). Although nothing was known about the location or name of her school, we had previously seen similar works in a friend’s collection and in Betty Ring’s collection. We began to research Abigail Larkin, and found she was born in 1798, the daughter of Isaac and Ruth Larkin, grew up in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and married Able Adams in 1817. At that point our research came to a dead end since there were a number of schoolgirl academies in Charlestown and nearby Boston she could have attended. Then serendipity stepped in.

Visiting the newly reopened American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum in 2009, we saw a schoolgirl piece identified as having been made at Charlestown Academy by Evelina Hull, circa 1812 (Fig. 2). Sure that the faces had been painted by the same hand that had painted the faces on our memorial (normally the schoolmistress or a professional artist painted the faces, while the schoolgirl did the embroidery), we contacted Amelia Peck, the Marcia Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Met, who specializes in American textiles. We brought our piece in for comparison and all agreed that the faces were probably by the same hand and, most likely, the needlework was from the same school, though our example was a mourning picture and the Met’s was a genre scene. The Met’s file revealed that the image in their collection was inspired by the 1794 British print The Shepherdess of the Alps, by Angelica Kauffman. Reliance on print sources was not unusual as a source of inspiration in needlework of the period.

Fig. 3: Needlework wrought by Abigail F. Cunningham, Charlestown Academy, Hannah Spofford preceptress, Charlestown, Mass., 1808.
Silk and watercolor on silk, 30¾ by 28¼ inches, framed. Courtesy of Stephen and Carol Huber.
Our focus then shifted to the Internet. Using the Historic American Newspapers database we found that the preceptress of the Charlestown Academy was Hannah Spofford during the years 1810 to 1812 when ads for the school had appeared in the Columbian Centinel, a Boston newspaper, and that she had previously opened a school in Worcester in 1804. Further online research led us to the American Antiquarian Society and the memoirs of Ephraim Abbott, a Harvard student who was an instructor (or preceptor) at the academy from 1806 through 1808. As we continued our research a more complete picture of Hannah emerged. Baptized in Andover, Massachusetts, on October 26, 1783, her birth certificate lists her name as Hannah Stevens, the daughter of Abigail Stevens, a dressmaker. At some point Hannah Stevens’ name changed to Hannah Spofford. Hannah was born out of wedlock and perhaps Spofford reflects her father’s surname (her mother never married), used perhaps to associate herself with a father in the eyes of society.1 Nothing is known about Hannah’s early education, but in 1801, at age eighteen, she was enrolled in the Free School of the North Parish in Andover, where she remained for one or more years.

Hannah next comes to notice, at age twenty, in May 1804, in Worcester, Massachusetts. In newspaper ads announcing a new female academy operating under her name, “in a chamber over the Green Store.” In the ad she declares that she will be “happy in devoting her time to the arduous, but pleasing task of Female Education.”2 There she taught reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, rhetoric and composition, as well as drawing and embroidery. Tuition ranged from $2 to $4 per quarter, depending on the subjects taught, and she also accommodated boarding students.

Fig. 4: The Portfolio (February 1812 edition). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Perhaps things did not go well in Worcester as Hannah was succeeded as schoolmistress by a Mrs. Nugent in 1805. No needleworks are known from Hannah’s Worcester school.
Hannah next appears in Charlestown in 1806 as preceptress of the Charlestown Academy, located on Cordis Street. According to the memoirs of the preceptor, Ephraim Abbott, “It had two stories, and two school rooms, one in each story. The Institution was supported by a company, who held forty shares. The holders of half of which could send one scholar for each share to me in the lower room. Those who held the other twenty shares could send, for each share, one scholar who should recite to the Preceptress, or to me, as the studies pursued required, or two scholars to be instructed by the Preceptress only.”3
Fig. 5: Mourning embroidery wrought by Mary Frost, attributed to Charlestown Academy, Hannah Spofford preceptress, Charlestown, Mass., ca. 1810–1815. Silk and watercolor on silk, 20½ by 18¼ inches. Previously in the collection of Betty Ring. Image courtesy Stephen and Carol Huber. Courtesy of a private collection.
The key to the school’s founding may have been the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, the pastor of the First Church, Congregational in Charlestown and a trustee of the Charlestown Academy. Morse had been the schoolmaster of a female academy in Connecticut in his youth and it is quite possible that he had a role in the initial founding and financing of the academy. Reverend Morse was the author of the widely popular American Geography and was the father of Samuel F. B. Morse, who invented Morse code. Two of Jedidiah’s sons, Richard and Sidney, were students at the academy during Ehpraim Abbott’s tenure; his third son Samuel was privately tutored by Abbott.

The academy was coeducational, with the boys being taught reading, writing, English grammar and arithmetic. The girls were taught drawing and needlework. Ephraim taught Greek, mathematics, and Latin, and, according to his memoirs he accomplished all of this while studying at Harvard, three miles away, a distance he walked each morning and evening.

An example of an embroidery worked during this early period of the school’s existence has recently appeared at auction.4 The legend on the eglomisé mat identifies the work as “Wrought by Abigail F. Cunningham under the tuition of Hannah Spofford, Charlestown, 1808” (Fig. 3).

In 1808 Ephraim Abbott left the academy at the suggestion of Dr. Morse and became a member of the first graduating class of Andover Theological Seminary. An ad was placed in the Columbian Centinel  February 6, 1808 for a new preceptor to replace him. It appears that during the next two years there was a shift in the structure of the school for on December 12, 1810 a notice appeared in the Centinel announcing that a “Mr. Brown, by the desire of the late Trustees,” had taken charge of Charlestown Academy. Oliver Brown was an 1804 graduate of Harvard and likely attained the position from his association with Morse, who was the secretary of the Massachusetts Society of Christian Knowledge, of which Oliver Brown was a resident member.

Fig. 6: Mourning embroidery wrought by Mary Edes, attributed to Charlestown Academy, ca. 1810–1815.
Silk and watercolor on silk, 30¼ by 27¼ inches. Courtesy of Historic New England.

In this same 1810 notice it was relayed that “Miss Spofford, who has been engaged as Preceptress more than four years successively, has renewed her engagement for another year.” Prior to this time there had been no promotion on behalf of the academy. This announcement may be the result of new governance and the new structure that, given the resignation of the trustees, apparently no longer relied on subscription but on enrollment fees. Another ad for the academy appeared in November 1811, again noting that Miss Spofford “has renewed her engagement for another year.” Tuition, at $9.50 per quarter, was significantly more expensive than in Worcester.

The bulk of the known needleworks appear to have been created starting at about the time of the 1810 notice. Thirteen works that can be attributed to the school are currently known.5 Of these, eight are memorials and five are genre scenes, the latter likely all copied from prints. The aesthetic associations among the group are based on visual characteristics and the similarity of the painted faces. The eight memorials are very similar, each displaying a printed epitaph on a plinth surmounted by an urn, with one or more elegant female figures in a display of mourning and an embroidered weeping willow behind the plinth. The inspiration for this mourning imagery seems also to be from a print source, in this instance an image in the February 1812 edition of The Portfolio (Fig. 4), which illustrates a woman swooning near an urn. Scholar Betty Ring was the one who located the Portfolio image when researching what we now associate as a Charlestown Academy mourning work in her collection. The piece was worked by Mary Frost and memorializes three family members (Fig. 5).

The names of most of the girls identified on the needleworks are known, but only one of the works is dated.6 Though the school is only identified, on two of the examples (figs. 2, 3), the girls who worked the images were all from Charlestown or Boston, and all were born between 1792 and 1798, making dates of creation for most of the works between 1810 and 1815 quite likely (Fig. 6). Two of the works, that of Abigail Cunningham (fig. 3) and Lucy Wyman were wrought between 1806 and 1810 based on the dated Abigail Cunningham work and the similarity of the rendering of the faces. It is possible that Hannah was the artist of these two early works and that a professional artist was hired to paint facial features for the larger, later group.

The final advertisement for the academy appeared in the Columbian Centinel, December 2, 1812. On October 9, 1813, Hannah Spofford and Oliver Brown were married at the First Church, Congregational in Charlestown, where Jedidiah Morse was pastor. By 1815/1816 they appear to have closed the academy, as by then the building was being used by another school. Oliver Brown went on to become a clergyman. Hannah died in 1827 in Kingston, Rhode Island, after a long illness. The couple had no children.

The story of Hannah reflects how a determined, resourceful woman could overcome social restrictions in early nineteenth-century New England. Her memorial is the amazing body of work created by her students.

No article of this nature can be accomplished in a vacuum.
The authors wish to thank Jay Robbins of Robbins Historical Research, Amelia Peck of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Elizabeth Pope of the American Antiquarian Society, Laura Johnson of Historic New England, and needlework dealers Stephen and Carol Huber.

William and Sally Gemmill are collectors and researchers of New England schoolgirl works on silk and paper. They are members of the The American Folk Art Society.

1. Email correspondence with the North Andover Historical Society states “Using Charlotte Helen Abbott’s genealogy, Andover Vital Records, and it would appear that Hannah Spofford was born to Abigail Stevens (as Hannah Stevens) October 26, 1783. She is listed in ‘An account of the females of Andover Free School [Free School of the North Parish in Andover], April 1801–September 1802,’ as Hannah Spofford of Andover.

A photocopy in the educational box of a contemporary newspaper clipping, cross referencing against the accession book, identifies it might have originally been published in the Boston Daily Advertiser, Jan. 1879, in ‘An Account of Franklin Academy’.”

2. National Argus, May 12, 1804 and the Massachusetts Spy, May 16, 1804.

3. According to Ephraim’s memoir, Hannah had come from Andover, which means he was either referencing where she grew up and went to school,
or that Andover was where she had been living prior to being hired at the academy. If the latter, then it explains her whereabouts after leaving Worcester.

4. Freeman’s, November 19, 2012.

5. The following memorials are in private collections: Catherine Greenleaf, Mary Frost, Miss Woodward, and Tabitha Thompson. The memorial of Abigail Larkin is in the author’s collection. The memorials by Mary A. Edes and Hannah Center belong to Historic New England; Abigail Walker’s memorial is in the collection of the Bartow-Pell Mansion. The genre works based on print sources are: Evelina Hull’s image of a musician (Metropolitan Museum of Art); Abigail Cunningham’s image of a classical female with children and Lucy Wyman’s image of a young family (Stephen and Carol Huber); the work of Adaline Bradford and an unknown needleworker are in private collections.

6. See figure 3.