by Holly Hurd-Forsyth, MHS Museum Registrar
American schoolgirl art is well represented in the collections of the Maine Historical Society, mostly in the form of embroidered samplers and other needlework, but two beautifully hand-drawn wall maps in the library recently caught our eye. They are the work of students at the Cony Female Academy in Augusta, and represent a shift in the education of women in the first quarter of the 19th century.
Before the American Revolution the education of young people in what is now Maine was an informal effort, under local jurisdiction. During the very early settlement period of the 17th century organized education was overshadowed by more pressing matters of survival. Many parts of the District of Maine were battlegrounds for the Indian wars raging at the time. Most communities were primarily fishing and trading stations with small populations. The relative indifference to education is understandable.
The 18th century saw the increased settlement and incorporation of organized towns, most of which legislated the formation of some type of educational system for its youngest citizens, both male and female. Public money was scarce, and the establishment of schools was slow. Most learning was done at home. It wasn’t until after the Revolution that systematized education became more of a priority.
By the late 1700s parents in the District of Maine had the option to send their children to private schools or academies–if they had the means to pay the tuition. These schools were clustered on the coast and along the major inland waterways, namely the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers. Portland, Wiscasset, and Hallowell were the sites of the earliest private schools.
Some of these were coeducational, but many catered exclusively to the education and refinement of girls and young women, such as the Cony Female Academy. Founded by Daniel Cony and his wife Susanna (parents of five daughters), and dedicated in 1816, it wasn’t the earliest of the female academies in Maine, but it was one of the longest lasting, not closing until 1857 (and living on as the nucleus of Cony High School). It was a private institution, but a generous endowment by founder Cony insured that it provided a free education to “orphans and other females” who could not afford the tuition, as well as admitting those girls whose families could pay. It boasted an extensive library, one of the best of its kind in the area at the time. Remarkably, there are several books in the MHS library bearing Cony Female Academy bookplates.
The Academy offered a course of instruction that blended the ornamental and intellectual arts – as the wall maps in the MHS collection attest. The ornamental (aka “womanly” or “useful”) arts included fancy needlework, drawing, and painting, which prepared young women to attract a husband and keep house, but students also learned reading, writing and penmanship, arithmetic, history, and geography.
The wall maps, completed as a school project, are a beautiful combination of these courses of study. In the words of Matthew Edney in his text for the 1999 Osher Map Library exhibit Worldly Treasures: A Fifth Anniversary Celebration, “although geography has always been a male preserve, girls as well as boys learned their geography by copying maps. Indeed, the teaching of geography by women school teachers also constituted a concerted female incursion into an otherwise male domain.”
The earlier of our two maps is also the largest (41 x 51 inches), and most ambitious in scope. It’s titled A Map of the United States of North America (map R 53), and was completed by Lusannah Stone in 1818. It depicts the U.S. and its territories as they existed around 1818, from the District of Maine to the east, northern Florida (technically still part of Spain) to the south, and the Missouri Territory to the west. It is hand-drawn, hand-lettered, and hand-colored, and was certainly a copy of a map that likely belonged to the school.
Lusannah (1802-1887) was the daughter of the Rev. Daniel and Lusannah Stone. She was born and buried in Augusta. She married William A. Brooks in 1824, and they had at least four children. Lusannah’s family was intertwined with the prominent Cony family: one daughter married a Cony, and Cony was another daughter’s middle name.
The second wall map was completed by Susan E. Church in 1826. Titled Map of the State of Maine (map R 5), it’s very similar to a Moses Greenleaf map of the state, and was probably copied from it. Smaller than the other map, it is still impressive at 42 x 27 inches. Less is known about Susan, although she may be the Susan Church (1813-1842) of Madison who married William Weston also of Madison in 1836, and died in 1842.
Both are extraordinary in the accuracy of their detail and in the skill of their execution. Each young woman must have learned a great deal about her state and her country in the process of drawing them. Given that they were mounted for hanging on a wall, they most likely were used to educate others as well, and perhaps even the creator’s own children.