Sarah Worthington Peter:
A woman, years ahead of her time
Moore started with Mrs. Sarah Peter. Beautiful, spirited, intelligent and years ahead of her time, came to Philadelphia in 1840 for a visit. She was born Sarah Worthington in Chillicothe in 1800, the daughter of Thomas Worthington of Virginia, who became United States Senator from Ohio and later governor of that state. At the age of 16 she married a young lawyer, the son of her father’s intimate friend, Rufus King, who was Senator from New York and twice United States ambassador to the’ Court of St. James. In 1836 her husband died, and having two sons at Harvard, Mrs. King moved to Cambridge. When her sons graduated, Mrs. King came to Philadelphia. She was so delighted with “the cleanliness, the order, the cultivation and the high tone” of everything in Philadelphia that she decided to make it her home. In October 1844, she married William Peter, British Consul to Philadelphia, graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, a man of cultivation and learning in the largest sense.
The Peters bought a fine old house on the west side of Third Street between Locust and Spruce. The house is no longer in existence, having been torn down in 1938. Near the Delaware River, it was in the section known as Society Hill, in which were some of Philadelphia’s handsomest houses, dating from Colonial times. Incidentally, “Society” does not refer to the elite but to William Penn’s Society of Traders, chartered to develop Pennsylvania, who made their homes in this part of Penn’s “Greene Countrie Towne.” Mrs. Peter created a distinguished background for herself, and her husband’s relations with England brought to her house many visitors of rank and eminence. Among these was Thackeray who made the house his headquarters, probably on his first trip to the United States in 1852. Her receptions and musical parties (she was an accomplished musician) were popular with Philadelphia’s old families, the Reeds, BiddIes, Ingersolls, the cultivated Misses Tilghman, the beautiful Mary Wharton, Mrs. Rush and her sister.
Sarah Peter, with a group of influential friends most of whom were Quakers, had founded a home for “unfortunate” women, called with typical pious Victorian tact, the Rosina Home for Magdalens. And almost immediately after her marriage she turned her attention to another aspect of woman’s plight, her need for training in order to be self-supporting.
It had long been known to her that Philadelphia led the United States in the manufacture of textiles, wallpapers, floor coverings, upholstery material, lithography, bookmaking with illustration and wood engravings, and that manufacturers, for want of available local talent, were importing designs for such products from Europe at considerable expense. With her usual practicality and foresight, Mrs. Peter put two and two together to the advantage of all. In a room in her own house and at her own expense she started a class of design to train women in such arts, a step which also helped to raise the level of American taste, and an ideal which the School has held close to its heart through the years.
At the time, to establish such a school was true pioneering. From the vantage point of a later era it is difficult to credit the degree of subservience in which the average woman was held. In a Commencement address delivered in 1882, the speaker observed: “. . . history through the ages and till we touch the last two or three hundred years notably the last fifty-has been one of sadness. Cramped, fettered, degraded, a menial, a slave, a drudge-it has not been possible for woman, until recent times, to exercise fully but one of all the faculties with which God has endowed her-the faculty of suffering.
“The Hindus made her man’s slave and compelled her to talk in the patois of the slave. The Hebrews regarded her as an accidental creation and as the mother of all evil. The Greeks proclaimed her a child and held her in lifelong tutelage. Medieval councils of the church declared her unfit for instruction. The early Christian fathers denounced her as a ‘noxious animal’ and a ‘painted temptress.’ Philosophers and legislators, later in the ages, saw in her only an attractive child, a ‘courtesan: an ‘object of pleasure to man’ or a ‘natural invalid.’
“The ill opinion entertained of woman found expression not only in literature, but in laws and customs. In marriage she was a serf: as a mother, she was robbed of her children: in public instruction she was ignored: in labor she was menial: civilly she was a minor: politically she had no existence. She was the equal of man only when punishment and the payment of taxes were in question.”
Needless to say, by Mrs. Peter’s time the bonds had begun to loosen a little. Still, for the most part girls were brought up merely to be expert housekeepers in expectation of marriage or, in more affluent circles, given a “fashionable” education.
To Mrs. Peter and some of her more enlightened contemporaries, this was not only waste, but servitude in the literal way as well as the spiritual sense. Women could, and unfortunately for their pupils many of them did, teach. But teaching brought in only a pittance. Forced thus by lack of training into financial dependence on relatives and friends, women had not only nothing to fall back on in case such a relationship should end: what was even more important for their future and the future of democracy, they had no sense of their own value and dignity as human beings.
Beginning with a drawing class of about twenty young women under one teacher, Mrs. Peter’s school flourished. Soon more teachers were needed and new classes started. Orders were obtained for ironwork, wallpaper, calico prints and woven textiles. Wood engraving, in which the School was a pioneer in this country, was taught, as was the whole process of lithography, from the surfacing of the stones to the final prints which were made in the School. Later china painting was added. It was a part of Mrs. Peter’s philosophy to teach arts which could be practiced at home without interfering with household duties.
By 1850 the School was outgrowing its quarters and had become too much of an undertaking for Mrs. Peter to handle alone, physically or financially.
It was in March of that year that she wrote to Samuel V. Merrick, President of the Franklin Institute, proposing” a connection of my school with your Franklin Institute,” as a cooperative but separate branch. This was not as inappropriate as it might seem; the Institute had been founded in the early days of the industrial revolution for the purpose of offering instruction in industrial and mechanical skills.
The letter was eloquent. As a result, beginning in June 1850, the Franklin Institute took the School under its wing for a period of about three years. A Managing Committee was formed consisting of S. V. Merrick, one of the founders of the Institute; Frederick Fraley, its Treasurer; David G. Brown, a Director and lifelong friend of the School, later to become its President, and two ladies. Rooms were rented on Walnut Street on the south side west of Third, where the School opened in December 1850. Mrs. Anne Hill, one of the city’s most accomplished teachers of drawing, was elected Principal, and Mr. Charles H. Parmalee was engaged as instructor in wood engraving and lithography.
Mrs. Peter remained in active touch with the School for a few more years, but in 1861 when one of her sons died, she felt the need of travel as a diversion. She sailed for Europe, taking with her a formal letter under the seal of the Franklin Institute commissioning her to investigate schools of design. She brought back valuable information, as well as works of art, models, casts and the like, which she gave to the School.
Her death came in Cincinnati in the year 1877. In 1930 she was nominated for the Book of Honor, a memorial to the distinguished women of Pennsylvania. She is likewise listed in the Dictionary of American Biography. A bronze bust of Sarah Peter, a copy of the marble original in the Cincinnati Art Academy, is owned by Moore College of Art & Design.