By Jessy Yancey
Walk onto the grounds of the historic Athenaeum Rectory in Columbia during the annual 1861 Girls’ School, and you might forget you’re living in the 21st century.
For one week in July, the Athenaeum returns to the year 1861, as it provides the backdrop for teenage girls to learn the skills a young lady would have needed in the 19th century. Girls ages 14 through 18 travel from all over the country and beyond to attend the school. In past years, girls have attended from as far away as Europe.
Penmanship and Parlor Games
“They learn things like ballroom dancing, etiquette, penmanship, needlework, Latin, hairstyling and mourning customs,” says Becky Logue, a volunteer at the Athenaeum Rectory. “Most the faculty are re-enactors and educators who take a week out of their summer to participate. This is the 18th year of the Girls’ School, and they’ve really developed it and honed their skills. Much of the staff has stayed the same since the beginning.”
Throughout the week, the girls stay with area host families and behave as if they were living in 1861, curtseying to elders and practicing other social graces. They dress in traditional 19th century costumes that they bring with them from home.
“There are some very beautiful gowns,” Logue says. “A lot of the girls make their own costumes with their mothers or grandmothers. They also order them off the Internet and arrange to rent them.”
Visitors to the Athenaeum during the 1861 Girls’ School might find girls in lavish hoopskirts practicing penmanship on the wraparound porch or playing parlor games inside the rectory, depending on the day’s schedule. Highlights of the week include a garden tea on the Athenaeum’s front lawn on Thursday afternoon and ommencement ceremonies and a grand ball on Friday evening. The girls are escorted at the ball by members of the Jackson Cadets, a fraternal service organization for high school boys.
“The Jackson Cadets take dance lessons with the girls all week, and they perform a grand march together at the ball,” Logue says. “It’s really something to see. There’s a huge line of ball gowns.”
Why Attend the 1861 Girls’ School?
Each year, around 20 girls attend the 1861 Girls’ School, traveling from as far as New Hampshire and New Jersey.
“I chose to attend because I love history and costuming, and I thought it would be interesting to step back in time for a week,” says Sarah Lally of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “I wanted to get a sense of what ladies had to go through back then and walk in their shoes.”
Katherine Marie Housley of Winchester, Tennessee, heard about the girls’ school when she was little and looked forward to attending for several years.
“Nowadays we don’t slow down to do things with effort, and I wanted to know how to really act like a lady,” Housley says. “When someone comes to my house, I want to know how to present things to them properly. We learned things you’d need to know to host a dinner party or evening gathering.”
Now a longstanding Columbia tradition, the 1861 Girls’ School was founded by Mark Orman, who serves as its dance master.
“I was a summer tour guide at the Athenaeum 19 years ago, and I thought it would be neat to go back in time and see what life was like,” Orman says. “We get a lot of girls who come with little or no self confidence. A week of being told what to do and how to do it and mingling with other girls does them a lot of good.”
Some may argue that skills such as ballroom dancing and needlework aren’t necessary for women in the 21st century. But Angie McClanahan, a longtime faculty member at the 1861 Girls’ School, would beg to disagree.
“I don’t think being graceful and ladylike is ever out of style. It’s something that’s sorely missing in today’s society,” McClanahan says. “It’s a privilege to act as our ancestors did and learn how they lived their lives. This is such a unique opportunity for the girls – it’s once in a lifetime.”
Rich in History
Noted for its Moorish-Gothic architecture, the Athenaeum Rectory was built in 1835 as a home for Samuel Polk Walker, nephew of President James K. Polk.
Ironically, Walker never lived there, and its first occupant was the Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith, who started a nationally recognized girls’ school at the Athenaeum in 1852.
The school buildings and rectory stood on 22 acres and flourished until 1903, offering girls the same subjects young men pursued at the time, including physics, chemistry and biology.
In 1973, Smith’s granddaughter, Fannie Louise Davis, deeded the property to The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities.
The Athenaeum is open for tours February through December and has several interesting features, including colorful flashed glass around the front door, an original fountain on the front lawn and a chandelier that was originally a gasolier.
For more information on this year’s 1861 Girls’ School, call (931) 381-4822 or visit athenaeumrectory.com.
Originally published in Tennessee Home & Farm’s Spring 2008 issue.