A History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (Mary Lyon)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 29th in a series of blogs that examine how education  developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Mary Lyon is best known in educational circles as the founder of Mount Holyoke Seminary (now College), the first higher education institution for women.

Lyon was born in 1797 on a remote New England farm. When she was four, she started her education in the village school; when the school moved three years later, she left her family and lived for the term with relatives and local families, performing chores to pay for her room and board. The school year was 10 months long, divided into winter and summer terms. Lyon was fortunate in that girls could attend the Buckland school year-round; in many towns, girls could only attend the summer term, when boys were needed for farm work. During the winter, girls had to sit on the school steps, hoping to catch snatches of the teacher’s lessons.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony made education compulsory for children as early as 1647, and by the 18th century, most Massachusetts towns had public elementary schools, known as common schools. Girls, however, didn’t benefit from the colony’s advanced ideas about education. If they received any schooling, it was uneven, at best. Most people felt they didn’t need to be educated just to become wives and mothers and homemakers.

Lyon was fortunate, though. Although she left school when she was 13, she received more education than most other girls at the time.

In 1814, Lyon was offered her first teaching job at a summer school in Shelburne Falls, next to Buckland. At the time, teachers weren’t required to have formal training, and Lyon’s reputation as an excellent student served as her qualification for the position.

The job paid 75 cents a week, far less than the $10-12 a month for men teaching the winter term. As was the custom at the time, Lyon “boarded around” in her students’ homes, which meant sometimes moving as often as every five days. For the inexperienced Lyon, maintaining discipline in the crowded one-room schoolhouse and teaching the “3 Rs” (reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic) to students aged four to ten, were difficult, but she worked hard at both tasks.

Teaching kindled Lyon’s desire to further her own education, but for an intelligent woman with little money in the early 19th century, that goal was almost unsurmountable. Private female academies, often called seminaries, sprung up throughout New England, but women in Lyon’s position couldn’t afford the fees. Moreover, the curricula were made up of “ladylike” skills such as drawing and needlework, which paled compared to the challenging subjects at all-male schools, which included geometry, science, and Latin. Lyon wanted more.

Over the next 20 years, Lyon taught at a variety of schools in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and her reputation as a gifted teacher spread widely. She also became an authority on the education of women. During these years, she developed her educational philosophy and gained practical experience in managing a school. Inspired by her own struggles to obtain an education, she worked diligently to 1) expand the academic opportunities for young women, and 2) prepare them to become teachers, one of the few professions open to them.

1834 was a turning point in Lyon’s quest for educational equality. She left her assistant principal post at Ipswich Female Seminary and focused all her time and effort on founding her own institution of higher education for women. For the next three years, she sought funds and support, visited schools, talked to educators throughout the country, developed a curriculum, chose the school’s location, supervised the design and construction of a building, hired teachers, and selected students. She also endured copious ridicule from those who felt her undertaking would be “wasted” on women.

On November 8, 1837, though, Mount Holyoke Seminary opened its doors to women seeking higher education.

Lyon’s goals for the seminary were innovative and set Mount Holyoke apart from other female seminaries of the period. They were:

  • A curriculum equivalent to those at men’s colleges
  • A minimum age of 17
  • Low tuition ($60/year) to make education affordable to students from modest backgrounds
  • Rigorous entrance examinations to make sure students were adequately prepared
  • Permanence: ensured by continued funds and a non-proprietary ownership so the school wouldn’t close after her death
  • Domestic work performed by students to keep operating expenses, and therefore tuition, low
  • Independence: run by a board of trustees who donated their time, not by a religious denomination or wealthy sponsor
  • A wide base of financial support so people from backgrounds like her own would feel that Mount Holyoke was a school for their daughters, financial meaning either money or needed supplies

The college was originally called a seminary because “seminary” meant it could be a preparatory school, offer a college education, or even offer graduate and professional training. Some historians believe Lyon felt she would attract greater financial support using seminary rather than college.

It’s interesting to note that neither Mount Holyoke, nor any other female seminary included formal courses in pedagogy, a profession that was rapidly expanding to include women. Instead, teacher preparation consisted completely of mastering the academic subject matter.[2]


Next week: Common School Period, McGuffey Readers


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.



[1] Mount Holyoke. (nd). “Mary Lyon, Student and Teacher.” Retrieved from https://www.mtholyoke.edu/marylyon/student.

[2] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, p. 101.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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