The University Record, August 13, 2001

19th-century schoolgirl’s letters reveal sense of style

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

This bill from the Bethlehem Female Seminary to the parents of Elizabeth Barras, dated Dec. 31, 1838, shows a balance due of $42.81. (Image courtesy Clements Library)
No, it wasn’t money that 8-year-old Elizabeth Barras wanted from her parents in Philadelphia during her term in a boarding school 1838–40. It was food and specific items of clothing.

Barras’ letters to her parents from the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa.—which the nieces of George Washington and Ethan Allen also had attended—don’t reveal much about her education, but they speak volumes about her sense of style and tastes in foods.

From a collection of 24 letters at the Clements Library comes a revelation that the wishes of a schoolgirl may have changed greatly since the early 19th century—or maybe not all that much.

“Elizabeth Barras reported relatively little to her parents, who were evidently annoyed that she had not written longer, newsier letters,” says Barbara DeWolfe, a Clements curator.

“She mentions only a few classes, such as German, music and Bible instruction, and she talks about sleigh rides and walks along the Lehigh River, and apple-picking and planting violets and roses in her garden.”

Barras shared a room with 60–70 girls whose days began at 5:45 a.m. sharp, followed by a breakfast of bread and butter at 6:45. Sometimes the students attended musical evenings and lectures on natural philosophy.

“We learn from her term bill that she took French and drawing, and that she also probably studied reading, writing and grammar, history, arithmetic, and sewing,” DeWolfe says. “But this information comes from other sources and not her letters.”

Instead, her letters asked for candy, cakes, oysters, clothes, bonnets, combs, broaches, ribbons, steel pens and leads for her pencil.

What foods did a young girl crave in an age without potato chips, corn chips, cheese curls, French fries and pizza? The list of “snack food” requests is long and includes pineapples, oranges, prunes, apples, raisins, grapes, peaches, pears, cantaloupe, mince pies, candy and cake. Also on her list were nuts, pickled oysters with crackers, oyster pie and crabs.

“She tried as best she could to steer her parents away from sending too much fruit,” DeWolfe says, “and instead to pack more candies and cakes. For her Christmas box, she wanted her favorite items: pound cake, jelly cakes, bonbons, small cucumber pickles, a large jar of pickled oysters, calf’s-foot jelly and mince pies.”

Barras’ clothing requests ran pretty much along the lines of today’s female students. She wanted to dress like her peers. But she decided not to trust her mother’s taste in a warm-weather bonnet and wrote that she wished to pick it out herself when she came home for summer vacation.

While Barras’ letters tell of her wants and needs, DeWolfe says, none of them “give a breath of a hint about troubles at school that led to her expulsion in February 1840.”

The last letter in the collection is from Principal John Kummer, who writes that he regrets that he will have to “solicit her speedy removal” because she is disturbing the peace, disobedient, disorderly, setting a bad example, willful, unkind, insubordinate, injurious to her companions and a pain to her teachers, who were “almost worn out by her repeated disobedience.”