Some Adventures in Private Education in Paterson


Segregation of African-American children in some educational institutions throughout America was an issue of great import in the mid-twentieth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, segregation in the common schools was also practiced but with a difference. In the 1840s and 1850s, the economic status of parents was the deciding factor. The rich—more precisely those parents who thought they could afford to pay for their children’s education—sent their children to academies, seminaries, select schools; the “poor” children were deprived of most school facilities. There were rare exceptions, however, in old Acquackanonk township and after 1831 in the newly formed Paterson township.

The best example is the S.U.M. Factory School —one of the oldest schools for children of poor parents to be established in the colonies. This school was set up in the basement of Mr. Peter Colt’s hornet on Market Street, Paterson in April 1794 for children of the workers in the cotton mills of the village. And since many of the boys and girls worked in the mills during weekdays, the school operated only on Sundays. Here they received their first instruction in the “Three R’s” from the 12-year-old Sarah, daughter of Peter Colt.

As a result of young Miss Colt’s success in this venture, the S.U.M., of which Peter Colt was the Superintendent, soon built a small, one-storied, frame schoolhouse on the southeast corner of Broadway and Prospect Street. John Wright opened this factory school; its last teacher was Thomas Willis who taught here as rate as 1820.

Another effort to provide some education for children of the poor was made by a few benevolent ladies, who during the winter of 1826 – 27, had opened their infant School for children between the ages of three and eight years. This school on Elm Street, Paterson, operated only one season.

It was not, however, until July 2, 1827, that the first publicly supported school for the poor children of the Township of Paterson was opened. It bore the name: “The Free School for the Poor.” This first “public” school is regarded by many historians as the first free school in New Jersey. It did not supplant the private schools for parents who could afford to send their children to them continued, but it did provide schooling for 170 to 180 youngsters who could not attend private classes and schools.

This new type of school was housed in the Paterson Academy Building, the lower room having been rented at $7.50 per quarter. The Rev. William J. Gibson, Pastor of the Covenanter Church, was engaged to teach. In 1828, the Township Committee voted to provide $500, of which $340 was to be Paterson’s share, for the support of the school which was moved to a room in the Baptist Church on Broadway near Mulberry Street.

Here, Mr. Childs taught for an annual salary of $300 but he had to provide the fuel to heat the classroom. During that year there was a registration of 157 scholars with an average daily attendance of 80. During the years following, up to 1836, when the word “poor” was dropped and all children were eligible for a free education in New Jersey, the school for the poor moved to various locations. During this period when “poor” children were receiving some education in the Township in the free school, private schools for other children continued to multiply.

Private classes and schools for boys and girls were popular in the states since colonial days. In many schools of this type, the boys and girls were segregated. Since these schools were “pay schools,” only those children whose parents could contribute to the salary of the teacher and the operating expenses in maintenance of the school could attend.

As early as 1799, the Rev. John Phillips and Mrs. Phillips opened a boarding school for “young ladies and gentlemen.” The school for the “ladies” was in the Old Hotel on Market Street (between Hamilton and Union Streets of latter-day) while the “gentlemen” attended school in the basement classroom of the Colt residence. This was a noble adventure but there were too few children to make the school profitable. It lasted one year only.

The basement classroom, once Sarah Colt’s schoolroom for the children of the S.U.M. workers, was used for many years afterward as private schools. Joseph Henderson had a school there in 1805 to be followed the next year by David Steven-son. Joseph Sherburne kept a school in the same location during the years 1810 through 1812.

A popular private school stood on Broadway opposite the Washington Market. Another occupied a large tenement house on Marshall Street south of Oliver. Throughout the village of Pater-son which had a growing population in 1840 of 7,500 persons, there were 1,006 scholars attending private schools.

The Paterson Academy

Among the many early private schools in the Village of Paterson, The Paterson Academy was the most outstanding. This was an institution incorporated on May 6, 1811, by five leading citizens of the village. These were: Abraham Van Houten. John Parke, Charles Kinsey, Samuel Colt, and Dr. William Ellison; these gentlemen served as trustees.

In order to further the cause of education in the community, the S.U.M. deeded a lot on Market Street to Acquackanonk township. This lot, with a frontage of 40 feet on Market Street and a depth of 25 feet, was to be the site on which the trustees were to erect a frame building of two stories. On this lot, now the site of the Franklin Bank, the Paterson Academy building was erected about 1814. It stood until 1846 when it was burned in the great fire of that year.

Tuition for courses in the Academy varied from two dollars to four dollars per quarter. For two dollars a child would receive instruction in arithmetic, the rudiments of grammar and geography; for an additional half-dollar per quarter, history was added and more advanced geography “upon a new and interesting plan withdrawing and the use of maps” would be included in the instruction.

For a more complete education, a fee of three dollars per quarter was asked. This entitled the child to receive instruction in rhetoric, composition, drawing, painting, and botany; and for an additional dollar, the translation of French was included.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were two private schools for girls in Paterson, one located in the aristocratic neighborhood, also known as “Quality Row,” the section of Market Street from Main to Clark, with its distinctive residence on Colt’s Hill. This school was on Market Street and was operated by a very charming, well-traveled, cultured lady.

“Passaic Seminary”

In an equally retired and “agreeable neighbor-hood” stood a frame school building, near the edge of the Passaic River, at the rear of lots 51 and 53 River Street. Nearby, across the old bridge approach, stood the Passaic Hotel, Paterson’s most famous hostelry for over one hundred years.

This was the Select School for Young Ladies. also known as the “Passaic Seminary.” Among the early “ladies” was a scholar whose name was known in households throughout the country for many years. She was Margaret E. Munson, the first daughter of English-born John Munson and his Scottish wife.

John Munson brought his family to Paterson when Margaret was a child. The town made a great impression upon her for it was then a “lovely place, situated in a valley, rimmed with green hills. It was then full of the hum of life. Mills for cotton, silk, and paper, and foundries gave the town a stir of activity.'”

Margaret tells us that her mother taught all of the children to read and she and two other children knew the alphabet when they were three years old. After her third birthday, Margaret could read easy lessons and by four, she was able to read any print-ed page placed before her. The reading material used for Mrs. Munson’s children were the Psalms and the Proverbs. Her spelling book was that of Noah Webster and only the multiplication table stumped her. At the age of six, little Margaret stood on a platform, she says, and recited, without a break, the great speech made by the Earl of Chat-ham in Parliament concerning the Stamp Act.

Margaret E Munson was about eleven years old when she began her studies at the Passaic Seminary.

Many years later in her autobiography, which she called “From My Youth Up” she spoke of this school as “the one I think of with love that has never grown cold.”

This young lady at such an impressionable age received a type of education in this rather unusual school which kindled within her the sparks of a most unusual career. At the age of twenty, she married a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, one George Sangster. (The writings and poetry of Margaret E. Sangster are too well known to be dwelt upon here but a rare word picture of the Passaic River and its imprint made upon Margaret Sangster in her girlhood, is appended on page eleven.)

Margaret E. Sangster gives us much insight into the life and customs of the select girls’ schools in Paterson during the late forties and fifties of the past century. She also pictures for us in her “From My Youth Up,” the characters of the Rogers sisters —Anna, the eldest and principal, Elizabeth eight years younger and Jane, the youngest daughter of the Rev. John and Jane Rogers who lived at the time in a “pleasant” home at 51 River Street.

In the middle of the schoolroom was a row of green desks with two other desks near windows out of which “we could glance and see the boats sailing up and down, and we loved to think of the river, never hurrying, never resting, tumbling with headlong swiftness, over the rocks at the Passaic Falls, where a sheer descent made rainbows in the sun, and frothed and foamed like a miniature Niagara. Where the river flowed past our door, it was fast and deep, smooth, and calm.”

The school was opened by the singing of a hymn, the reading of a passage of Scripture, and a little five-minute talk by the teacher. Then the Lord’s prayer was recited by all. “We were drilled in spelling, syntax, etymology history, and French. “Two mornings each week the girls had to write compositions. And twice a week, sewing by hand was taught as no gentlewoman was then supposed to be half-educated unless she had been made mistress of needlecraft.” Hemstitching, embroidering, and working in wools were a part of the curriculum. Miss Jane Rogers read to us during our sewing period, says Mrs. Sangster. Her favorite readings were from history and biography but sometimes she included poetry.

The Rogers sisters always insisted upon self-control from their scholars as one of the most essential attributes of womanly character. “It’s no excuse,” Miss Anna would say, “that you were off guard, that you did not think, that you forgot your-self. One’s business is to be on guard, and one must think before she speaks or acts.”

The motive underlying every hour of life in these early school days was a sense of responsibility. The teachers were in the habit of answering questions with quotations from the Bible. Also, the Bible quotations were used instead of scolding. For a girl who had been a little heedless or who had not recited well or done her exercises, as well as she, could have done, the young lady would find, upon entering the school the next morning, a slip of paper upon her desk inscribed with a text per-haps, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” The initials of the teacher would be appended.

“The education given young women in my day”, says Mrs. Sangster, “differed in certain details from that which they now receive; but it was not less thorough, less practical, nor less available in fitting students for the future.”