From Lectern to Laboratory: Schools and Schoolmasters

In the same year that the Massachusetts State Legislature passed the nation’s first compulsory school attendance law, Edward Charles Pickering turned six years old, two years younger than the compulsory school attendance age, but old enough for his parents to begin planning for their eldest son’s formal education. Like his recent forebears, who lived in or near Beacon Hill’s South Slope neighborhood, Edward Pickering would be well educated. There was no doubt about that. Edward would attend Boston Latin and then matriculate at Harvard College, where presumably he would study law. It is the first step, however, of which we are uncertain: Just where did young Edward go to school prior to Boston Latin? It may not seem important to know the answer to this question, if it can be answered at all, but by looking into it we just might learn more about Boston’s evolving educational system.

The first organized public school experience for Boston children in the mid-nineteenth century was typically the local primary school, which took in children ages four to eight years. Under the law of 1789, illiterate children were barred from grammar school attendance, which began generally around age eight. If parents couldn’t teach their children the basics of literacy at home then they had to send them to a private school for such instruction; that is, if they could afford to do so. When the first public primary schools began appearing in Boston after 1818, under the direction of the newly created Primary School Committee, the burden of teaching their children was lifted for many families who were either unable to teach their children or couldn’t afford to send them to private school.

Like private nursery schools (and, later, public kindergartens), primary schools hired a female teacher to teach the basics of reading, writing, spelling, the use of the slate, simple arithmetic, and sewing. At age eight, each student—if deemed qualified—received a certificate of transfer to the local grammar school. The transfers took place semi-annually on the first Monday in March and in July when school broke for summer vacation. Children were given monthly, quarterly, and yearly exams (the last of which was administered by members of the Executive School Committee during the first two weeks of May).

Since illiterate children were barred by law from entering grammar school, children who reached age eight and had not passed the literacy and numeracy tests had to continue their education at a special school, called an “intermediate” school. Once students passed their exams, they entered grammar school. However, the grammar school of nineteenth-century Boston is not to be confused with the Latin grammar school of seventeenth-century Boston, which was modeled after the English classical school that emphasized the mastery of Latin, Greek, English literature, religious history, and math. By the mid-nineteenth century, Boston grammar schools had evolved (or devolved, depending upon your point of view) into a system of public elementary schools that barely resembled the original English classical liberal arts model.

In fact, by the end of the nineteenth century, the term grammar school had all but disappeared in preference to the more general term elementary school. In other words, although the growing number of grammar schools in 1850 Boston might have served well the general school-age population, they did not serve the specific needs of elite, upper-class families intent on sending their sons to college. And Edward Pickering’s parents were intent on just that, which meant that Edward and Charlotte Pickering would not have sent their eldest son to a local grammar or elementary school since its curriculum, admirable for the time, would not have adequately prepared Edward for entry into Boston Latin. Realistically, there was only one choice for Edward and Charlotte Pickering when it came to choosing a school for their eldest son. Edward had to attend a private school taught by a certified Latin grammar master. There was really no other way for Edward to obtain the requisite education he would need to pass the entrance exams to Boston Latin, which, in turn, would secure him entry into Harvard College.

In all likelihood, then, Edward stayed home under the supervision of his mother, a live-in relative, or governess, until he was six or seven years old, at which time his parents would have enrolled him in his first “man’s school,”8a local private school capable of preparing him—and other boys of European descent—for the rigorous entrance exams to Boston Latin. Since this was the age of the horse and buggy, more than likely Edward Pickering attended a school within walking distance of his home on Mount Vernon Street—but which one?

In his reminiscence about living in Boston during the middle of the nineteenth century, James D’Wolf Lovett gives us a clue as to which school Edward might have attended: “Private schools in those days were not too plentiful, and the best were Phelps’s, Sullivan’s, under Park Street Church, Prescott Baker’s, in Chapman Place, and Mr. Dixwell’s Private Latin School, in Boylston Place.”9Let’s take a look at each of these schools, plus Chauncy Hall School, and try to determine which school young and impressionable Edward Charles Pickering might have attended.

Dixwell School. Born to Boston physician John Dixwell and Esther Sargent Dixwell, Epes Sargent Dixwell took the usual course of studies that most sons of prominent families did: he attended Boston Latin, then Harvard College—and all before his sixteenth birthday. He was a natural scholar with interests in literature and music. After graduating from Harvard in 1827, he taught at Boston Latin as a sub-master and part-time at the English High School. In 1830, Dixwell abandoned his education career to study law at Harvard, apprenticing with Charles G. Loring, one of the most eminent lawyers in Boston. Dixwell passed the Massachusetts Bar in 1833, but gave up his practice three years later to accept the position of headmaster at Boston Latin.

A successful, well-admired, but feared schoolmaster, Dixwell stepped down fifteen years later because of a residence requirement passed in 1851 by the Boston City Council. Nine years earlier, Dixwell and his wife had moved to Cambridge, preferring the town’s quiet, tree-lined streets to Boston’s busy thoroughfares, as well as Cambridge’s more intellectually stimulating environment. However, after the Boston City Council passed an employee residence requirement, Dixwell was given a choice: resign or move back to Boston. Dixwell decided to resign, and then turned around and opened his own private Latin grammar school in the heart of Boston, naming it The Private Latin School of Boston (although locally it was known simply as Dixwell School). In Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played, Lovett portrays the school as follows:

Mr. Dixwell’s school, founded in 1851, was located in Boylston Place, in a house which he built specially for it, and was recognized as the finest private school in Boston. Boys were here fitted for college, and any graduate who bore Mr. Dixwell’s hallmark was sufficiently guaranteed without further question.10

Ernest Samuels, writing about Henry Adams’ experience at Dixwell School (after it had moved to Boylston Street), noted that Dixwell prepared young scholars “with single-minded diligence for the Harvard entrance examinations, studying Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, geography, English composition, and, of course, declamation.”11One of the more detailed descriptions of Master Dixwell comes from Massachusetts State Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who wrote in his memoirs:

Mr. Dixwell was a direct descendant of John Dixwell, the regicide, who sensibly took refuge in Connecticut when the estimable Charles II came to the throne. I have thought since, perhaps fancifully, that a certain stiffness and rigidity which were observable in my master, who was a good deal of a martinet and given to severe sarcasm at the expense of stupid or disorderly boys, may have ben inherited from his conspicuously Puritan ancestor, who had passed sentence of death upon a king. But what I never doubted was that Mr. Dixwell was a thorough gentleman, albeit a rigorous one, and that he was also a scholar and an accomplished man.12

He must have been accomplished, and his instructional methods must have worked, because Dixwell obtained consistent results: between 1851 and 1872, the year the esteemed schoolmaster retired, almost five hundred scholars matriculated at Harvard. Regarding his methods of instruction, Senator Lodge added:

We spent a great deal of time on the Latin and Greek grammars and mastered them thoroughly. We learned to read and write Latin and to read Greek with reasonable ease, going as far as Virgil, Horace, and Cicero in the one and in the other concluding with Felton’s Greek Reader, which contains selections from nearly all the principal poets and prose-writers of Greece…. In addition to the classics we were drilled in algebra and plane geometry, and were given a smattering of French as well as courses in Greek and Roman history.13

It is precisely because of the success of Master Dixwell that we can rule his school out. If Edward Pickering had attended Dixwell School prior to attending Boston Latin, which we know he did, why would Edward’s parents transfer him to Boston Latin if Master Dixwell could have prepared Edward for entrance into Harvard directly? That seems a bit illogical. Therefore, barring some fallout with Master Dixwell (of which we have no evidence), we have to assume that Edward Pickering never attended Dixwell School.



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