Our archives contain a partial school record of an artistic young Hingham scholar. Her name was Lydia Sprague, and she attended Derby Academy from 1844, when she was 12, through 1846. Her sketchbook, hand-drawn maps, copybook, and other school work provide a glimpse into schoolwork at Derby Academy in the mid-19th century and reveal a schoolgirl’s love of drawing and a desire to excel by attention to detail.
Lydia’s small sketches of possibly local scenes, landscapes, and figures engaged in play and daily life suggest a family talent shared with the more famous Hingham artist Isaac Sprague. Isaac Sprague, an older second cousin, was born in 1811. Like Lydia, he was the son of a box-cooper and grew up in Hingham Center. It is likely that Lydia knew and looked up to her cousin Isaac.
Isaac Sprague was a self-taught artist and naturalist who met early success when he accompanied John Jay Audubon on the 1843 expedition up the Missouri River that led to Audobon’s famous portfolio, “Quadrupeds of North America.” An obituary of Isaac Sprague quoted him as saying, on the subject of his training, “I always had a fondness of making pictures and made small drawings at school.”
Young Lydia Sprague also made “small drawings at school,” and we have in our collection three of her pencil sketchbooks, highly detailed maps of American states and territories, and a copy book of exquisite penmanship. This fascinating legacy conveys her individual achievement as a diligent student and young artist.
The repetitive penmanship exercises of moral phrases and the exhaustive information included on her maps provide a glimpse of Derby Academy’s high expectations both of virtuous behavior and proficiency in these areas of study.
Before the advent of universal public primary and secondary education, most children who received a good education had affluent parents who could pay for it. Lydia was the daughter of a box-cooper and born in 1832, when most Hingham girls of her class were taught only enough reading, writing, and arithmetic and needlework to prepare them for their lives as the wives or tradesmen, mariners, and artisans. She had the good fortune to have been raised by parents who valued education and who enrolled her for a few years at Derby Academy. This progressive school, the first in New England to offer a rigorous education to girls, was founded shortly after the Revolution and perhaps reflected a new republication concern that women be prepared to raise knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.
–To be continued