06 March 2020

The Somerset Young Ladies Institute (1848 - circa 1880)

Boarding schools catering to the needs of teenaged (and younger) girls were popular in America from the late 18th century onward. One of the first in Central New Jersey was established at Somerville in 1848 as the "Somerset Institute for Young Ladies." The tavern - shown on the right in the image below - which stood at the fork in the road where the Somerville Library is today was moved down West End Avenue to the outskirts of town and became the school's first building.

Circa 1850
John Severance of Berkshire County, Massachusetts was the first principal when doors opened on September 5, 1848. He served in that capacity for two years and then was succeeded by his niece for an additional two years. Unfortunately, although the students were well served, neither Severance nor his niece was able to sustain themselves financially. 

1850 Map

In 1852 the Rev. Calvin Butler bought the property and added a third story to the original building. Still lacking space for increasing enrollment, he purchased the house to the west, eventually joining the two buildings as seen in the 1856 image below,


Rev. Butler and his wife welcomed the girls as part of their family. Accordingly, their "habits, manners and morals [were] under a constant and kind supervision." The year was broken into three 14-week terms. Pupils received a thorough education in academic subjects including religion. For this, including room and board, the cost was $150 (about $4,500 today). Music, Drawing, Painting, Leather, Cone and Wax Work was extra - as was washing at 25 cents per dozen pieces.

The Institute also made provisions for day scholars who would have come from the Somerville area. The 1860 US Census shows, besides the Reverand and Mrs. Butler, three additional teachers and a serving girl, five boarding students ages 8 through 17. The Butlers left the school after the spring term in 1860 after which the school had a succession of principals until Rev. William Cornell took charge in September 1867. The next year he constructed a building on South Street (approximately the route of Veterans Memorial Drive) and moved the school to that location.

1873 Map

When Rev. Cornell died on September 11, 1876, the fall and winter terms were canceled. School was resumed in March 1877 but by that time the public school system in Somerset County had been well established for almost a decade and the Somerset Young Ladies Institute closed its doors after a few more terms.

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