Julia Ward Howe and the Seminary Bread Prize

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 11, 2018.

In 1885, Exeter’s Robinson Female Seminary principal, George Cross, worried that the twenty-year-old school had become a bit too academic. “The present curriculum is valuable and practical, and goes far toward the attainment of the ends indicated. But the Seminary can, without in the least impairing or changing the present course, do much more that will be immediately serviceable to many of the pupils.”

The school’s benefactor, Exeter native William Robinson, wanted a girls’ school that would, “make female scholars equal to all the practical duties of life; such a course of education as will enable them to compete, and successfully, too, with their brothers throughout the world.” This was all well and good, but there was some concern that book learning wouldn’t feed families.

Cross commented that the Seminary, “offers a good course in chemistry with an elective of half a year’s study of qualitative analysis. To this it is intended to add a three month’s course in either Junior or Senior year in domestic chemistry, the most practical that I can devise, and that should be supplemented by a course of lectures and applied lessons in cooking given by some eminent teacher of the art.” And with that, the domestic science department was created.

To give the girls some incentive, William Burlingame, secretary of the Board of Trustees, offered monetary prizes for the best bread baked each year. And because teenagers, then as now, appreciate both competition and cash, the contest was quite popular with girls.

In 1899, the most famous woman in America was Julia Ward Howe. Howe had written the lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song that many wanted as the national anthem. Born into wealth in 1819 in New York City, it is unlikely that Howe ever had to bake her own bread. She was educated by private tutors. Her brother, like William Robinson, was given a formal education. She had to content herself with reading the books he brought home from college. She became a poet and philosopher in her own right, but necessity and society required her to marry. In 1843, she married Samuel Gridley Howe, an abolitionist and social reformer known primarily for his work educating the blind. While Samuel was busily running Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind, Julia stayed at home – managing the household, having babies, caring for babies, caught up in the seemingly endless reproductive role women believed was their ‘true calling'. Julia managed to carve out time to write. Over Sam’s objections, she published poetry under her own name. The marriage was rocky. Julia supported women’s suffrage. Samuel did not. He believed her place was at home. She believed it was with the intellectual class of Boston literati. During the Civil War, Julia penned an alternative set of lyrics to the battlefield ditty, “John Brown’s Body” and within a few months it was sung everywhere. Lauded by the public, anytime Julia gave a speech, she was greeted with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Samuel Gridley Howe died in 1876. Julia, who was 18 years younger than he, was finally able to spread her wings a bit. She toured the country and wrote constantly.

In 1899, this esteemed, somewhat dangerous, woman was asked to speak at the Robinson Female Seminary Domestic Science Prize Day. Perhaps because she now had the freedom to do as she chose, Julia Ward Howe accepted the invitation. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “the school had been exceptionally fortunate in securing as the speaker for the occasion the gifted Julia Ward Howe.” She was introduced by Principal Cross. “As she entered the chapel the school rose and sang her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the News-Letter observed, “to her manifest surprise and pleasure” – as if she wasn’t feted by that same tune everywhere – EVERYWHERE – she went by this time in her life. Still, she seemed to have been a good sport about it. She could, at this point, have next let forth with an unbridled feminist manifesto on the rights of women. Her husband had squandered her money. She was still without the political power of the vote. But instead, she looked at the faces of the eager students – so proud of their bread making skills – and talked to them about literature. She discussed Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow and Holmes – all of whom she’d been lucky enough to meet. She talked about the work of Margaret Fuller, an early feminist. “Her voice,” the News-Letter noted, “is naturally weakened, but it has a quality which probably made her remarks audible in all parts of the chapel, and her mere presence was an important event in the Seminary’s history.”

Howe lived another ten years. The Burlingame Bread Prize continued at the Seminary long enough for a young Marion Louise Tyler to write in her diary in 1909, “May 18th: As it was Bread Day we didn’t have any school in the morning. Ruth got 3rd prize, and I got 1st honorable mention.” In a side note to her sister Ruth, Marion noted, “Didn’t I take a loaf of your bread when I got 1 H mention? I’m sure I did.” The athletic Louise would go on to marry happily, travel the world with her husband, legally vote and live her life the way she wanted. Julia Ward Howe would have been pleased.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member! Join online at: www.exeterhistory.org

Image: Bread loaves on display for the 1898 Burlingame Bread Prize at the Robinson Female Seminary. The following year, Julia Ward Howe was invited as the keynote speaker for this annual event.


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