Jacob Abbott and his schools for young ladies; Abbott's instructions on keeping a diary

George Frederick Root (1820-1895) was a successful composer and music publisher, who, early in his career, taught voice at the Abbotts' schools. His autobiography contains several passages describing encounters with Jacob Abbott. The first extract reprinted here shows Abbott as an employer and innovative educator, and provides a glimpse of his school; the second contains Abbott's instructions on keeping a diary. Both passages depict Abbott as a kind, but intensely practical, man.


After I had been at Bowdoin street a few months, Mr. Jacob Abbott, on one of his visits to Boston, asked if he could go with me to one of my class singing lessons. Yes, he could go to one of the public school lessons or to an evening class of ladies and gentlemen. I think he went to both, but remember particularly his visit to the evening class. I knew that he was a great educator, and that his "Mt. Vernon School for Young Ladies" in Boston had been famous a few years before. Mr. Mason taught in it (before the public school work began), and, when one of the young ladies died, composed a tune for the hymn " Sister, Thou wast Mild and Lovely," which was written for the occasion, and called it " Mt. Vernon." I think both hymn and tune are well known now. I was very glad when Mr. Abbott seemed pleased with my classes and my teaching, but had no idea what that approval would lead to. I found out soon after, however. He and his brothers, John S. C., Gorham and Charles, had just started a young ladies' school in New York City, and he wrote them that he thought he had found the teacher they wanted for the music of their institution. Upon their answering, Mr. Jacob spoke to me on the subject of going there. I hesitated; I was doing well, had a large circle of good friends, was near my old home, etc., but Mr. Abbott said: " There is a great field in New York-- nothing like Mr. Mason's work and yours has been done there. Here Mr. Mason and Mr. Webb are at the head, and you must for a long time occupy a subordinate place. There you will have a clear field, and I think you can sustain yourself in it. We want such work as you can do in our school, and we think other institutions will want the same when


they know what it is." He offered a generous price for a daily class lesson five days in the week, I to have the entire amount I could make from private instruction. He thought, also, that at Mercer Street Church--Dr. Skinner's --where he attended church, they were considering a change, and he believed they would like our kind of large choir. After talking with the folks at home and my good friends in Boston about the matter, I finally said: " If the church position can be secured, I will go." "Well, come and stay a few days with us, and let the people see and hear you, and we believe it will be brought about." I went, gave a lesson or two to the young ladies in class assembled, talked with the church people, played the organ a little, and, at a company assembled at Mr. Abbott's for the purpose, sang my repertoire of songs from Russell's " Ivy Green " to Schubert's "Wanderer." The next day the matter was settled for church and school, and I went back to Boston to arrange for a speedy commencement of my work in the great city of New York. It was some time in 1844 that I left Boston for my new field of labor.




ABBOTT'S school for young ladies at that time was in one of the fine houses in the white marble row in Lafayette Place, New York, spacious and convenient beyond anything I had before seen. I found the work delightful. Our methods were new, as Mr. Abbott had said they would be, and no one having made class teaching and singing tedious and unpopular in the school it was not difficult to arouse and keep up an interest in the lessons. We had frequent visitors--parents and friends of the young ladies, and other persons interested in seeing the new work, and later on in hearing the pleasant part-singing. This singing in parts came along astonishingly soon, for three-quarters of an hour every school day with those bright, interested girls was very different from the two half hours a week that I had been accustomed to in the Public Schools of Boston. . . .


. . . I ought to say something more here of that remarkable family with whom it was my good fortune to be connected during my ten years in New York. The published works of Jacob Abbott and of John S. C. Abbott are known. In the legal profession the works of Benjamin Vaughan Abbott and of Austin Abbott are, I am told, regarded as standards, and in the theological and editorial world Lyman Abbott is one of the most eminent men of the present time. These three last mentioned are sons of Jacob Abbott, and were boys at the time of which I write. That, however, which is not " known and read of all " is the home and school-life of these admirable men. In their homes and in their school-rooms, with each other and with all who were connected with them, either as pupils or teachers, their intercourse was characterized by a sincerity and a gentle friendliness so steady and so constant that breaking over it into roughness of any kind or into disobedience seemed impossible. I saw no outbreak or case of "discipline "in all the years that I was with them. That their excellent methods and great skill and attainments as teachers had something to do with the result will of course be understood. They were called in the school by no other names than " Mr. Jacob," " Mr. John," " Mr. Gorham," and " Mr. Charles," and I was always " Mr. George," and my brother " Mr. Towner."

As larger buildings were needed the school was moved, first to Houston street, then to Bleecker, both near Broadway. I can not remember just when the brothers decided to have two schools, and now I miss my diary again. In fact, as I go on, I miss it more and more. That book, by the way, and the circumstances that caused it, are worth speaking of.

Early in my New York life Mr. Jacob said to me one day: "Did you ever keep a diary?" "Yes,"' I answered, "I have begun a half dozen at least." "You haven't any of


them now?" "No." "You burned each one after writing a few weeks or a few months in it." "Yes." "Was it because you had been so sentimental that you gradually grew tired of what you had written, and at last ashamed to have any one see it?" I laughed and said it was exactly so. "Well," he said, " that is a very common experience. I will tell you what kind of a diary you will never wish to burn. Get a good sized, substantially bound blank-book and record in it simply facts of your every-day life; first, every event of your past life, with its date, that you think you would like to remember years hence, then begin where you are now and do the same thing every day. Speak of pupils, letters, people you see, concerts, classes, journeys--in short, every occurrence of any prominence that is connected with your work or home. Do not give an opinion or admit a word of sentiment in regard to any of the records you make, but let them be stated in the briefest and most concise manner possible. They may look dry to you now, but years hence they will be full of associations of the successful and pleasant life you are now living, and instead of growing tiresome as you read them, they will become more and more interesting and valuable."

I saw at once how good this advice was, and went right off to Mr. Ivison (who was then a member of Mercer Street choir) and had the book made. It was as large as a good-sized ledger, was bound in strong leather, and so arranged that it could be locked. As soon as it was done I asked Mr. Jacob to come and see it. He came, and when he had looked and approved I asked him to begin it for me. He did, and this is about what he wrote:

" Mr. George has brought me in here to see his new book. This is his music room. It is octagonal in shape, two corners being cut off for closets and two for doors of entrance. The wood-work is oak. All octagonal table occupies the center, and book-cases with


glass doors are on the side between the doors. There is a piano and a lounge here, and several easy chairs in convenient places. Twenty years hence, Mr. George, when you read this in some totally different scene let it remind you of your New York music room and


I did as he advised--began with my early life, and found I could recall almost everything of importance before going to Boston, and while there, then started from that time (early in 1845) to make short daily records. This went through my New York life, my first stay in Europe, and my early convention work to 1871, when we were in full tide of successful business in Chicago--more than twenty-five years of brief, close record. The book was but little more than half full, and how true were Mr. Jacob's ideas about the memories and associations it recalled. " Closing exercises at Rutgers to-day" was not merely the record of a musical exercise twenty years before. About that commonplace event were now summer flowers, bright skies and dear friends-- and the flowers grew sweeter, the skies brighter, and the friends dearer as the years rolled on. But a memorable day came when my big journal shared the fate of its little predecessors. It was burned! But not by my hand. It went up, with many other mementos of my former life, in the flames of the great Chicago fire.

Somebody may be as much obliged to me as I was to Mr. Jacob for this suggestion about the way to keep a diary.

The Story of a Musical Life: An Autobiography by Geo. F. Root
Cincinnati: The John Church Co., 1891.

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Scanned by Deidre Johnson for her 19th-Century Girls' Series website; please do not use on other sites without permission