Sarah Pierce was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 26, 1767. She was the youngest of Mary Paterson and John Pierce’s seven children. Sarah’s early life was one of loss and endurance: Her mother died when she was quite young; her father remarried, and he and Mary Goodman had three children; but when Sarah was fourteen, her father died. Her brother, Colonel John Pierce, became the sole support for the family, but he supported his sisters’ desire for a formal education. Thus Sarah and her sister Nancy were sent to New York City for their education. In 1792, Sarah Pierce began her lifelong occupation as founder and head of a girls' school that became nationally recognized for its quality of education. First established in her home with only one student, the Litchfield Female Academy (as it became known in 1827) was one of the nation’s most successful female academies.
Under Pierce's leadership, the academy attracted students from throughout the United States and Canada. The school’s curricula included the typical “accomplishments” courses in dancing and sewing, but it was much more rigorous than most female academies of its day. Students were educated in reading, writing, composition, arithmetic, geography, history, and science. As enrollments increased, Pierce selected her own best pupils to become teachers at the Academy, thus perpetuating her pedagogical vision through subsequent generations of students that included Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her pedagogical philosophy was reflected in an end-of-semester address she presented in 1818, "It is equally important to both sexes that memory should be stored with facts; that the imagination should be chastened and confined within its due and regular limits; that habits of false judgment, the result of prejudice, ignorance or error, should be destroyed or counteracted; that the reasoning faculties should be trained to nice discriminations and powerful and regular research. Hence then all those sciences and all those exercises which serve in our sex for those important purposes should be part of a well regulated female education."
In 1825, Pierce turned over the directorship of the school to her newphew, John Pierce Brace, who had assisted her at the school for more than a decade. But she continued to teach for several years, focusing on her favorite subject—history. When Brace had the opportunity to become principal at another school in 1833, Pierce returned to her role as principal of the Academy; she was sixty-six years old, and she remained head of the institution for another decade. Pierce died in Litchfield on January 19, 1852, having dedicated her life to the education of women.
The following poem by Pierce is one of the earliest recorded utopian visions in American literature. Pierce's life-long friend Elihu Hubbard Smith made the following comments about the contexts of the poem in a letter dated December 24, 1795: "A strict intimacy had subsisted, for some years, between Miss Sally Pierce, & my two eldest sisters. Of these, at the time the `Verses' were written, Mary, the eldest, was . . . engaged to marry her present husband, Thomas Mumford. Sally Pierce, was, at the time of writing these lines, just beginnning to acquire, by he own exertions, some feeble knowledge of Drawing. The three young women were together; it was evening; Sally had shewn them some of the productions of her pencil; & they were, sportingly, conversing of their different destinations. The conclusion was, that, when Mary left them, the other two should unite, & spend their lives together, `in single blessedness.' This idea once started, it received numerous additions, & the whole economy of a house, & of life, was readily arranged & determined on. Before separating, it was agreed that Sally, should design a house suitable for each, & sketch the surrounding scenery. . . . Her first care was directed towards accomplishing a plan for Mary. . . . The inexperence of Miss Pierce, in the art of design, made her progress both slow & painful; so that, when she had effected her first picture, by the aid of the pencil, she had recourse to a readier instrument, & relied on the pen for a sketch of the second. And, lo! this is the landscape which she drew."
Sharon M. Harris
Sketches of Universal History Compiled from Several Authors. For the Use of Schools. 4 vols. 1811-18.
Vanderpoel, Emily Noyes. Chronicles of a Pioneer School from 1792 to 1833,
Being the History of Miss Sarah Pierce and her Litchfield school. Cambridge: UP, 1903.