Susanna Rowson, who founded one of the first female academies in Boston, is also remembered as a literary figure in early America. Her works include numerous novels, plays, poetry, lyrics, and textbooks for her Academy.
Susanna was born in England in 1762. The daughter of a British Naval officer, her mother died giving birth to her. Lt. Haswell was commissioned to the American colonies, and Susanna came to settle with the family in Nantasket (Hull), MA. Because of his British ties, Haswell's estate was confiscated during the American Revolution, and the family suffered great hardship. By 1778, they were forced to return to England.
While working as governess to the Duchess of Devonshire, Susanna published her first novel, Victoria, in 1786, with the Duchess as her patron. Her novel, Charlotte Temple, followed in 1791, and soon became the first "best seller" in America written by a woman.
At the age of twenty-four, Susanna married William Rowson, a hardware merchant and trumpeter in the Royal Horse Guards. Soon after their marriage, Rowson declared bankruptcy, which forced the couple to turn to the theater to support themselves. While touring Edinburgh and rural England, the couple signed a contract to appear at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia for the 1793 season; and three years later, they opened at the Federal Street Theater in Boston. During this time, Susanna Rowson wrote four plays which were produced on the Philadelphia and Boston stage.
In 1797, she left the theater world to found Mrs. Rowson's Academy for Young Ladies in downtown Boston. The Rowson Academy offered academic training and refinements to the daughters of 'middling' class families. As enrollment grew, the school moved to Medford, to Newton, and then back to Boston as students came from throughout New England and as far away as South Carolina, Bermuda, Canada, and Great Britain. While running the Academy, Susanna continued her diverse literary pursuits, from writing poems, lyrics, and textbooks for the Academy, as well as serving as the first woman editor of The Boston Weekly Magazine from 1802-1805.
Mrs. Rowson's Female Academy began on Federal Street, Boston, in November 1797. It moved to High Street in Medford (1800-1803); to Nonantum Corner in Newton (1803-1807), then to Washington Street in Boston's newly-developed neighborhood in the South End, before settling on Hollis Street in 1809. Rowson remained as head preceptress until 1822, at which time the school was willed to her niece and an adopted daughter.
Susana Rowson Behind the Scenes:
In Fall 1985, Peggy Kimball, Education Site Manager at The Bostonian Society, called to say she had just attended a teachers' workshop and was enthusiastic about the idea of developing some historical programming.
"You are just the person I have in mind to do a historical character portrayal," she said. "I spoke with Tom Parker, the Director," she continued, "and in fact, we have someone to recommend: 'Susanna Haswell Rowson, America's First Lady of Letters and a trailblazer in female education. She was also an author and actress, who opened the Academy for Young Ladies on Federal Street, downtown Boston in 1797.'" Peggy also said that The Society had some needlework from students at Rowson's Academy in their collection, and that Rowson had lived on both sides of the Atlantic twice during her long and productive life.
My question, "But why isn't she better known now?" went unanswered - "Well, she was renown in her day," was all Peggy said - I was already drawn in. When I went to The Bostonian Society to view the archival materials, Peggy announced, "I've just applied for a Boston Arts Lottery grant," and smiled. The grant application was awarded for two performances at The Bostonian Society in May and November 1986. We brought together an artistic director, costume designer, and stage manager to assist us in the production, while I began the research and scriptwriting. Peggy coordinated the entire effort.
The premiere performance was staged on May 1, 1986, with 75 members in attendance. This was my first attempt at portraying an historical character; everyone was most encouraging that I continue in this pursuit. I sent out some letters of request, and an initial flurry of interest followed, including a performance for a Women's History and an American literature class at Simmons College, where I learned that Mrs. Rowson's literary efforts were studied in graduate level literature courses. At The Cambridge Center for Adult Education performance, Judeth Van Ham from Hull offered to apply for a Hull Lottery grant to bring Mrs. Rowson to the Hull Middle and High School(s).
Then in early 1996, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England), the Medford Historical Society, and the South End Historical Society each scheduled a performance. Even though there was a significant lapse in time since my last performance, I felt the "breathing space" allowed me to delve deeper into understanding who Rowson was as a person.
I made contact with Wendy Lement, who was researching the Rowson Academy and its impact on early female education for her doctoral dissertation at Emerson College. Wendy and I went to The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester to access materials on Rowson as pathfinder in 18th century female education. I met Patricia Parker too, the Rowson biographer, who resides on the North Shore. The three of us soon met with our Rowson biographies in-hand. Parker and I soon teamed up for a couple of 'biographer-character' performances, at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and for a comparative literature class at North Shore Community College.
In Spring 2001, I viewed the Rowson artifacts in the Medford Public Library collection that include an impressive collection of original handbound textbooks; letters authored by Rowson ahd her former students; articles and clippings about the Academy when it was located on High Street (present day site of Grace Episcopal Church, on Route 60) in West Medford from 1800-03.
Research continues to provide a steady 'paper trail' on Rowson's life. Various local sites include the Hull Public Library - the building itself is located on the site that Rowson spent twelve of her childhood years on the eve of America's Revolution. The Houghton Library at Harvard University has an array of playbills from her Federal Street Theater days in downtown Boston, and a handwritten 'letter from Newton dated 1805.' The Worcester Art Museum has a Rowson portrait by Samuel Morse in their fine art collection; and even though the accession file correspondence suggests a dispute in the 'authenticity' of this portrait, it is still rather amusing to consider the possibility. The Boston Public Library has an assorted collection of Rowson materials in their Rare Books collection. And the Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead includes mention in several books as well as a marker near the Massachusetts Turnpike to commemorate the spot where the Rowson Academy was situated, in the Hull Mansion at Nonantum Corner, from 1803-07.
Selected Performance Sites:
- Allston Public Library, March '10
- American Independence Museum, Essex NH, March '10
- Millyard Museum, Manchester (NH), December '08
- Discovery Days, Longfellow National Historic House garden, August '07
- Medford Public Library, 150th Anniversary Celebration, August '06
- DAR-Framingham chapter, Good Citizen Awards February '06
- Fort Revere, Hull (MA), memorial placque dedication, July '05
- Walpole Public Library, April '05
- Daughters of the American Revolution, annual meeting, Lancaster, MA, March '05
- Captain Samuel Robbins House, Avon (MA) March '04
- Royall House Museum, Medford, November '04 [PDF]
- Upsilon Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, Annual Meeting, October '04
- Pepperell (MA) Public Library, April '04
- Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead, March '04 [PDF]
- Watertown High School, December '03
- Hull (MA) Public Library, August '03 [PDF]
- Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Otis House, Boston, June '03 [PDF]
- Brookline Arts Center, June '03 [PDF]
- Merrimack (NH) Public Library, April '03 [PDF]
- Medford Public Library, May '02 [PDF]
- North Shore Community College, October '99
- Cambridge Center for Adult Education, May '98
- Medford Historical Society, March '97
- Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Otis House, Boston, March '96
- South End Historical Society, February 96
"A Trip to Parnassus" 1788
"Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth" 1791
"Rebecca, or the Fille de Chambre" 1792
"Trials of the Human Heart" 1795
"Reuben and Rachel" 1798
"Sarah, the Exemplary Wife" 1813
"Slaves in Algiers, or A Struggle for Freedom" 1794
"The Volunteer" 1795
"The Female Patriot" 1795
"Americans in England" 1797
"An Abridgement of Universal Geography" 1805
"A Spelling Dictionary" 1807
"An Arithmetic Book" 1809
From the Poem: "The Rights of Woman"
in Miscellaneous Poems, 1804
"While Patriots on wide philosophic plan,
Declaim upon the wondrous rights of man,
May I presume to speak? And though uncommon,
Stand forth the champion of the rights of woman? Nay, start not, gentle sirs; indeed 'tis true,
And if she's wise, she will assert them too."