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Ann Woodbury Moore

Articles by Ann Woodbury Moore

Updated 16 Oct 2006

Life at Mount Holyoke
by Ann Woodbury Moore

In September 1847, when Emily Dickinson was almost seventeen, she left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Its founder, Mary Lyon (1797-1849), wished to "save women from ignorance" by making education available to all segments of society.

In a letter to her friend Abiah Root, written on November 6, 1847, Dickinson described life at Mount Holyoke.

"I room with my Cousin Emily," she wrote. The seminary was a single large building, with students' rooms on the upper floors. Each eighteen- by ten-foot room was furnished with beds, a table and chairs, a chest of drawers, bookshelves, a washstand and mirror, rugs, whale-oil lamps, and a Franklin stove.


Emily Dickinson

Letters written to her friend Abiah Root provide a glimpse of Dickinson's day-to-day life as a young girl.


Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Dickinson attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts for one year. In 1888, the seminary was renamed Mount Holyoke College.

"At 6 o'clock, we all rise. We breakfast at 7. Our study hours begin at 8. At 9 we all meet in Seminary Hall for devotions." Classes and music practice were held before and after dinner, the main meal of the day, served at 12:30. "At 41/2 [4:30] we . . . receive advice from Miss Lyon in the form of a lecture. We have Supper at 6 and silent study hours from then until the retiring bell, which rings at 8 3/4 [8:45]." The "tardy bell" rang at 9:45 P.M.

"At 3 3/4 [3:45] I go to Sections, where we give in all our accounts for the day, including, Absence--Tardiness--Communications--Breaking Silent Study hours--Receiving Company in our rooms and ten thousand other things." This "self-reporting" system required students to monitor their behavior and report any violations to their section teacher.

"My domestic work is not difficult and consists in carrying the Knives from the 1st tier of tables at morning and noon and at night washing and wiping the same." All seminary students spent an hour each day doing chores. This kept fees low, eliminated the need for servants, and promoted equality.


"I am . . . reviewing the Junior studies, as I wish to enter the middle class." Mount Holyoke had a three-year curriculum. Subjects included English grammar and literature, geography, history, economics, algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, astronomy, botany, physiology, philosophy, Latin, and religion. Students also were required to walk one mile a day and do calisthenics.

"Father has decided not to send me to Holyoke another year, so this is my last term," Dickinson wrote to Root on May 16, 1848. Only one-third of Mount Holyoke students returned each year, and only one in ten graduated. The reasons included poor health, insufficient funds, homesickness, marriage, and lack of interest. Although it is not clear what Dickinson's specific reasons were for leaving the seminary, in August 1848 she returned home to Amherst, Massachusetts.

Emily Dickinson

Although Dickinson resisted Mary Lyon's religious teachings at the seminary, she probably took to heart Lyon's belief that "we have great power over ourselves. We may become almost what we will."


Originally published in COBBLESTONE'S March 1995 issue, page 9.  Copyright COBBLESTONE Publishing 1995, 1999.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted in Riverside Publishing's Massachusetts Custom Extender pilot test, and its 1999 achievement reading tests in the Spanish language.  Reprinted in the Oklahoma Operational test booklets published by CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Reprinted in the Alaska Comprehensive System of Student Assessment (CSSA) 2004 Field Test booklet, published by Data Recognition Corporation.

CobbleStone Publishing Company

Related Links:
bulletEmily Dickinson Links from BYU
bulletMount Holyoke College
bulletYahoo! Dickinson Links

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