Miss Sarah Porter: The Beginnings of Women’s Advanced Education in Farmington

Author: Marisa Ferretti

One day in 1843, as Mr. Noah Porter and his daughter pulled away in their carriage from their Farmington home, an idea he had for quite some time found its way into his daughter Sarah’s consideration. Taking on the responsibility of running her own school did not seem too outrageous, given her teaching experience. Their conversation on a casual afternoon was the beginning was what would become Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy.

Miss Sarah Porter was born and raised in Farmington, Connecticut. As the daughter of an affluent reverend, wealth brought her more opportunities than most other women of her time. Though she was primarily self-educated in pedagogy, she studied under Dr. E. A. Andrews of Yale College. Her prior teaching experience came from teaching positions in Springfield, Philadelphia and Buffalo. Despite these excellent opportunities, she always longed to be home in Farmington, with her family and all the things that brought her happiness. Soon enough, Sarah migrated home where she was to be presented with an opportunity that would define her future.

After her father introduced his idea to her, plans for the project were made up and set into action. The school got its start when Miss Porter and her family recruited children from Farmington as well as a few from outside the county to attend her daily classes. Those who lived too far to travel daily resided in Miss Porter’s house under her supervision. Sarah Porter taught her students in a rented upstairs room of the historic “stone store,” at 96 Main Street. She worked there alongside two other historic figures from Farmington: John Hooker, a lawyer, and Joseph Hawley who, so influenced by Hooker, began studying law, passed the bar and went on to serve as a Civil War General, as well as both Governor and Senator of the state of Connecticut.

In 1847, Miss Porter relocated to the schoolhouse that was built by the Farmington Female Seminary Association. Soon enough, the word of Miss Porter’s educational sessions spread throughout the county, and interest in the school grew. She purchased what used to be a hotel for those that were traveling up and down the Farmington River, and transformed it into the main house for her girls. The former hotel still stands today and has continued to be used by Miss Porter’s School. It sits at 60 Main Street, right down the road from the previously used, “stone store.”

Miss Porter's School

Miss Porter’s School

By 1854, the school was all the rage of the region. Families fought to get their girls into Miss Porter’s, as the openings were limited. This was partly due to the amount of housing they had for the girls. At this point girls were residing in the main building with Miss Porter. Though the number of applicants per year was growing rapidly, a second dormitory wouldn’t be acquired until some 40 years later. Her family’s influence throughout New England was what got the ball rolling however, the success of Miss Porter’s pupils were the true reason why her school took off. The curriculum she implemented was intensive, compelling the girls to go above and beyond.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

The girls at Miss Porter’s School were given a special schedule per day. Each student was given an individual itinerary for classes however the school as a whole allotted time during the day to go on walks and eat lunch. Miss Porter was adamant that her students had a life outside of the classroom. She believed that activities such as athletics and theatre were was in which the girls could gain self-esteem and become more confident. Despite her efforts to get the girls out of the classroom, Miss Porter was still very strict when it came to their studies. Every day, the students were given time for study hall, in order to complete the work that they had received in class. Miss Porter monitored the girls closely at this time as she strived for them to perform to the best of their ability. Every night Miss Porter would lead the girls in prayer as well, as it was an important way to end their day.

As the number of girls at the school increased, so did the importance of learning womanly duties. Porter viewed her school as a stepping-stone toward the girl’s ultimate goal of becoming a wife, taking responsibility of a household including a husband and children. She taught the girls to be wives and mothers as that was their ultimate job in adulthood. Miss Porter’s school was a transition for these girls from their childhood home to running a home of their own.

Miss Porter’s work in Farmington is, to this day, unparalleled. She ran the school up until her death in 1900, when it was put under the supervision of her close family. Upon her passing, the students enrolled in Miss Porter’s School at the time worked to establish a memorial in her honor. The First Church of Christ gratefully allowed the construction of a building in the name of Miss Sarah Porter on their property, a way for the girls to show admiration for their beloved headmistress. The building now sits at 75 Main Street in Farmington, where it can be seen by all the traffic passing through town. Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy will live on in Farmington indefinitely.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Connecticut Historical Commission, Historic Resources Inventory Building and Structures: Site 202, Parsonage, Farmington, CT, 1875. Farmington, CT: State Doc. 1973. http://farmingtonlibraries.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/96-Main-Street.pdf

Howe, J. Olin. “Sarah Porter of Farmington.” Boston Evening Transcript, October 15, 1913. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19131015&id=-RonAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cgMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5923,3065498&hl=en.

“Sarah Porter Memorial.” First Church 1652: First Church of Christ, Congregational. http://www.firstchurch1652.org/Porter-Memorial-Hall.

Sloane, William M. “Sarah Porter: Her Unique Educational Work.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906) LX, no. 3 (07, 1900): 344. http://0-search.proquest.com.www.consuls.org/docview/125508798?accountid=9970.

Stevenson, Louise L. “Sarah Porter Educates Useful Ladies, 1847-1900.” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 39-59. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 28, 2015). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.www.consuls.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=37011224&site=ehost-live&scope=site