An American Family: The Beecher Tradition
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Lyman Beecher and his two first wives produced thirteen children, most of who became prominent in their own right. Catherine Esther Beecher was born in 1800, during a period when the "cult of domesticity" was the accepted doctrine for women. Helping to care for her large family, she was educated at home until the age of ten when she was sent to a private school where she was taught the limited curriculum available to young women. Through self-study she learned the subjects not offered in schools for young ladies and by 1824 was convinced that her mission was "to find happiness in living to do good." That year she opened a private school for young ladies in Hartford, Connecticut known as the Hartford Female Seminary which taught the higher branches of learning. She went West with her father and organized the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, which prospered until 1837. Returning to the East she helped organize "The Ladies Society for Promoting Education in the West," and was instrumental in the founding of women's colleges at Burlington, Iowa, Quincy, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Catherine is recognized as one of the early promoters of higher education for women, and taught, lectured and wrote on the subjects of education, domestic economy, women's health and calisthenics until her death in 1878.

Portrait of Catherine Beecher.

Portrait of Catherine Beecher. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
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Illustration of street-side entrance to building with columns, and trees on either site.

Hartford Female Seminary. Courtesy of The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
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Catherine Beecher believed that there was a need for a school for girls that would challenge their intellectual abilities. Hartford, Connecticut did not have such a school and Catherine was determined to start one. She opened the Hartford Female Seminary in May 1823, and it remained an important institution for the education of women for more than sixty years.

The school began on Hartford's Main Street with seven pupils, and in three years it grew to almost one hundred students. It moved to larger quarters and then to a building of its own, with ten rooms and eight teachers. By the time Catherine left the school in 1831 to go West with her family the school had achieved a reputation on par with Emma Willard's school in Troy, New York, and Zilpah P. Grant's in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Letter from Catherine Beecher to Mary Lyon, July 10, [1828?]. Mt. Holyoke Archives, Mary Lyon Collection, Series A, "Correspondence 1818-1849." URL:

Page from letter with enlarged greeting 'My dear Miss Lyon'.

This letter is on the Web as part of the Five College Archives Digital Access Project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 1996-1999.
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This letter is an offer by Catherine Beecher to Mary Lyon to teach at her new Hartford Female Seminary. Miss Lyon did not accept a position and went on to found Mt. Holyoke Seminary (now Mt. Holyoke College).

Transcript of the letter:

Hartford July 10th [1828?]

My dear Miss Lyon,

A few weeks since Mr. Henry Jones was here, who is to be the principle of a new female seminary in Greenfield.

In speaking of a female assistant, he expressed a good deal of hope that he could induce you to come to Greenfield.

I had always supposed that it would be ungenerous in me to attempt to get you away from Miss Grant, but if circumstances are such that there is a probability that you may leave her, I wish before you make any decided engagement you would first let me make you an offer here.

I think you would be pleased with the situation in every respect if what I can offer in pecuniary matters is sufficient. We find our present arrangements charming. The society & cooperation of the teachers among themselves our opportunities to read & improve ourselves the facilities we find in teaching & many other things I could tell you of, would I think be very acceptable.

The excellent literary & religious society of this place I think is no small inducement to a residence here.

Will you write me immediately if there is any prospect that I could induce you to join the faculty of the H.F. Seminary.

I send herewith a Catalogue to you & Miss Grant in which you will learn some particulars about the Seminary. If I were not in haste to get this mailed I should like to say more. I am interested to hear how Miss Grant's health is & how she prospers.

I know of no teacher who is more after my own heart than she & I wish I could see more of her.

Sincerely Your friend

C.E. Beecher


Catherine Goes West

Catherine Beecher was quickly assimilated into Cincinnati society, joining literary and intellectual cliques. Her acceptance by the elite of Cincinnati was important for the founding of a school in Cincinnati which would be a model to the West.

When I removed to Cincinnati my health was such that it was hazardous for me to attempt any enterprise demanding continuous labor or responsibility. But I was immediately solicited to establish a school there of a higher order than any then existing. (Catherine Beecher, Educational reminiscences and suggestions, 1874, p.82.)

The financial crash of 1837 caused the end to the Western Female Institute but Catherine had introduced an innovative program in calisthenic exercises, which took several more decades to finally be accepted as appropriate to women.

When physical education takes the proper place in our schools, young girls will be trained in the class-rooms to move head, hands and arms gracefully; to sit, to stand, and to walk properly, and to pursue calisthenic exercises for physical development as a regular school duty as much as their studies. (Catherine Beecher, Educational reminiscences and suggestions, pp.85-86.)

Catherine Beecher and her role as an educator

Catherine spent much of her life writing about and promoting the education of women. She believed that women should devote themselves to the moral development and education of their children and to their home, and she felt that to accomplish this, women needed to be well educated. She began to support herself by writing, and her many treatises and books include The Moral Instructor for Schools and Families: Containing Lessons on the Duties of Life (1838) and A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1841). She also organized the Ladies Society for Promoting Education in the West and in 1850 the American Women's Educational Association. Her ideas and doctrines of education were implemented in several schools that she helped found.

Cover page from book   Cover page from book.
Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper: containing five hundred recipes for economical and healthful cooking; also many directions for securing health and happiness. (1873). American Memory Project, University of Michigan and Cornell University.
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  Educational Reminiscences and Suggestions. (1874) American Memory Project, University of Michigan and Cornell University.
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