What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“By limiting the number of his pupils … he has a singular advantage.”
Samuel Blair ran a boarding school for boys in Philadelphia in the early 1770s. In an advertisement in the January 16, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the schoolmaster announced that he had openings for two pupils and promoted the benefits of learning in such an exclusive setting. He explained that for the “special benefit” of his students, he limited enrollment to only twelve boys. He advertised “whenever a vacancy occurs,” alerting parents who “choose … to have [their sons] instructed in a private family rather than a public school.”
Blair briefly outlined his curriculum, but devoted most of his advertisement to the virtues of a residential setting for a small number of students. The course of study included “the Latin and Greek Languages, Geography, Arithmetic, and all the most useful practical branches of the Mathematics” as well as “the arts of reading, writing, spelling, and speaking English with elegance and propriety.” His school, he suggested, produced genteel young men.
Their comportment, not just the skills they acquired and the subjects they mastered, made them genteel. Blair asserted that “limiting the number of his pupils” allowed him to “devot[e] himself wholly to the care of their education,” including “constant intercourse and conversations with them as members of his family.” That represented a “singular advantage” for his students compared to the attention they received from other schoolmasters. In addition to “bringing [his pupils] on in these studies and exercises with expedition and accuracy … in such a way as shall render them most easy and agreeable to their young and impatient minds,” Blair declared that he instituted a gentle system of discipline that formed young men of character. In the course of spending time with his students in and beyond the classroom, he took responsibility “for correcting and forming their tempers, for inspecting and regulating their general deportment, and for governing them by the milder and more successful means of argument and persuasion.” The schoolmaster did not deploy harsh methods of correction. Instead, he treated his students as members of an extended family.
Blair did not rely on exclusivity alone to generate interest in his boarding school. To attract interest from the parents of prospective pupils, he described the benefits of that exclusivity. His students not only received an education but also an upbringing that transformed them into genteel young men. When they entrusted their sons to his care, parents could depend on them learning a variety of subjects, both practical and refined, under the watchful eye of a schoolmaster who kept order and instilled good manners without resorting to draconian means. Blair believed that his program presented a “singular advantage” for his students … and aimed to convince parents of prospective pupils that was indeed the case.