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A Letter from Mary Lyon....

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

South Hadley, Aug 26.1847

My dear Miss Bliss, Won’t you be willing to go to Virginia to teach? It’s a place where Miss Moore taught this year. Can’t you go now? Won't you object to going .... Can you teach drawing? I have just written making further inquiries. I shan’t hear till I receive their letter whether I shall wish to recommend you. Please let me hear from you very soon. I may be away, but I have arrangements to have my letters forwarded.

Affectionately yours, Mary Lyon

Imagine being twenty years old and at home with your father, a deacon and a farmer, your mother and two much younger sisters and receiving this kind of letter - asking you if you would be willing to leave Massachusetts and head to Virginia to teach school. Such was the case for Miss Georgiana Bliss of Longmeadow in 1847. Miss Bliss had recently completed a three year course of study at Mary Lyon’s school, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (today Mount Holyoke College), and returned home waiting for whatever her next season of life would bring.

Attending Mount Holyoke was no small academic feat for young women like Georgiana Bliss. It was not a “finishing school” to train young women in the Domestic Arts, but a place for real academic scholarship. Entry to Mount Holyoke was not for the average student, and the curriculum was rigorous and demanding. A hallmark of Mary Lyon’s commitment to female education was her high standards for curriculum, which much more closely mirrored its all-male seminary peers like Amherst College, Yale, and Harvard. Students were expected to be a minimum of 16 years old and have a firm grasp of particular mathematics, grammar and geography textbooks. Per an 1847 course catalog for Mt. Holyoke on “Studies required for admission to the seminary”:

“A good knowledge of Wells’ English Grammar, with an ability to apply the principles in analyzing and parsing, and of Modern Geography, and a readiness in Mental Arithmetic, that is, an ability to give a correct answer to the questions as they are read by the teacher, and to give an account of all the steps of the mental process, – also a good knowledge of common Arithmetic, including all the more difficult rules. In the examination of Arithmetic, a list of questions taken from different authors is used. It is recommended that candidates for admission go through two or three different authors, so as to thus gain more mathematical discipline, and be better prepared for examination. A good knowledge of Mitchell’s Ancient Geography, of Andrews’ and Stoddard's Latin Grammar, and Andrews’ Latin Reader, of the History of the United States, and of Watts on the Mind, is also required.”

At Mount Holyoke students read Euclid and Milton’s Paradise Lost, studied Algebra, Botany, Philosophy of Natural History, Ecclesiastical History, Latin, Physiology, Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, Rhetoric, Geology, Logic, Moral Philosophy, Composition, French, and Histories of Greece, Rome, England and France. They also made time for calisthenics, instruction in vocal music, and linear and perspective drawing. All of this came at a cost each year of $60 (exclusive of fuel and lights) for room and board, paid over two $30 installments. The year was divided into three terms, one of sixteen weeks and two of twelve weeks each.

All students were instructed to arrive with their own Bible, a dictionary, a modern atlas, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, Village Hymns, and any other books they felt might be useful to their studies. As a Female Seminary, religion was at the core of all work. Upon examination by Mary Lyon, poet Emily Dickinson, a student at Mt. Holyoke in 1847, was infamously classified as a “No Hoper” on a scale of Saved - Hoper - No Hoper regarding the state of her soul. Dickinson left after only one year of study. Georgiana Bliss must have fared better since Mary Lyon sought her out to recommend her for a teaching position upon completing the entire course of study.

Per later alumni directories for Mount Holyoke, it would appear Georgiana Bliss did indeed take the position offered to her in this letter. From there, she taught in a few other locations before marrying a Union College graduate, Rev. George McQueen. What followed next was exactly the kind of experience an education at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary prepared a woman for: to be the wife of a missionary. Rev. and Mrs. McQueen set off for missionary work in West Africa. After her young husband’s death in Africa in 1859, Georgiana returned to Longmeadow briefly to be with their young son, Charles, before returning to continue the work she believed in. Georgiana Bliss McQueen died in Longmeadow in 1901 and is buried in Longmeadow Cemetery under an obelisk shaped memorial also bearing her husband’s name and details of his work.


  1. Archives, Longmeadow Historical Society

  2. Catalogue of Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, 1847-48

Contributed by Melissa Cybulski, LHS Board Member

Originally published November 21, 2021

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