What is (was) Hartford Public High School?

Postcard of Hartford Public High School in 1911

Postcard of Hartford Public High School in 1911

How important can your average high school be to the legacy of an old city like Hartford, Connecticut? Hartford has notoriety for being home to the Colt Factory, the Mark Twain House, and maintaining the moniker of being the insurance capital of the world. It’s an understatement to recognize the strong relationship these institutions have to the overall narrative of Hartford, Connecticut, past and present. However, there exists another place full of Hartford’s rich history that often goes unnoticed and inevitably under-appreciated. Hartford Public High School is a priceless historical landmark, and is in fact the second oldest high school in the United States. The Latin School (its original name) was founded by prominent minister Thomas Hooker in 1638, and called the Latin School, three years after the Boston Latin School was established in Massachusetts. Overtime, the school expanded physically and academically to create a valuable curriculum for its scholars, becoming a rite of passage for many great leaders to attend it. The school established itself as one of the most renowned institutions of learning in the nation.

Upon its inception, the Latin School was the first and only site of secondary education in the state of Connecticut. Its purpose lied within the name, to teach students Latin and Greek languages, to ultimately read and understand the bible, and to become ministers alike the school’s founder. The Puritan ideology was firm in New England during these early colonial years, and preparing the next generation of preachers and theologians was of great importance. This would set the tone of much of the school’s story, as its religious based teachings would allow for its students to attend Harvard or Yale, where they would complete their studies.

These early years were marked by Edward Hopkins, an English colonist, one of the founders of Connecticut and its 2nd governor. He was a philanthropist, donating his time and wealth to enhancing education in New England, establishing an additional private institution in Connecticut. Hopkins’ generosity extended even in death. Upon his death back in London of March 1657, he left a large bequest in his will for the Latin School, dedicating the funding to the “breeding up of hopeful youths, in the way of learning, for the public service of the country in future times” (New England Journal of Education 172). These funds were eventually used by the school when they began looking for a permanent home, as the school was held in a house belonging to the city, that was simultaneously used a weapons storage.


Early Developments

The Latin School would undergo major changes in the late 18th century, under its new name, the Hartford Grammar School. The school stayed true to its Puritan roots, and continued teaching Latin and Greek for theological purposes, however, a new expanded curriculum was being advertised. There was even consideration for a night school, to help the youths to engage in the more difficult subjects such as math and science, “extracting the square and cube root… plain and circular sailing… and the use of celestial and terrestrial globes” (Strong 1). In a 1781, in the Connecticut Courant newspaper, the Grammar School posted its curriculum offerings as: “The Latin and Greek languages, or the purpose of preparing youth for the higher feats of learning—also English grammar, the art of speaking, arithmetic, geography and the use of globes, elements of geometry, trigonometry” (Lewis 3). The posting concludes with informing that “the school is supported by public funds and free to all” (Lewis 3). The enhanced curriculum was met with the expansion from one to four teachers.

Advertisement for the Grammar School in Hartford, 1781. Source: Readex Historical Newspapers Database.

  About Grammar-School in Hartford, request from Nehemiah Strong. January 13, 1769. Connecticut Courant, no. 213, 16 Jan. 1769, p. [1]. Source: Readex Readex Historical Newspapers Database.

In May of 1798, the Hartford Grammar School took another step towards becoming the Hartford Public High School when it became incorporated by state legislature—by petition of the town of Hartford. The school heightened its standards for admittance, implementing entrance examinations and satisfying the school’s trustees qualifications:

No youth may or shall hereafter be admitted as a student in said school unless he shall be adjudged on examination, capable of reading and spelling the English Language with accuracy, writing an handsome copy & small hand, and resolving questions in the four first Rules of arithmetic to be determined by order of said Trustees according to their discretion (Acts and Laws 1060).

This marked the onset of a more elitist institution, at the beginning of the 19th century.


Officially "Hartford Public High School"

Although the Hartford Grammar School used strict criterion for enrollment, the 18th century movement for public, centralized high schools was rising throughout the state and the nation. Conversations advocating for a public high school in Hartford were led by Henry Barnard, who was considered a pioneer in creating educational opportunities for the community at large. Reverend George Burgess of Hartford, was also leading the charge, and at one of the many hearings about a new public high school, stated:

At an adjourned meeting of the First School Society of Hartford, held November 5, 1839, to hear the report of the committee appointed at the annual meeting to take into consideration the expediency of establishing a high school, it was voted “That it is expedient that a public high school be established at the earliest period at which suitable arrangement can be made.” (Hartford 14)

Other consideration to create a high school for Hartford was the growing population in Hartford, and the city wanted to stay competitive, as the City School Society of Middletown has already established a high school in 1840.

The path to create a public high school was not clear, as the movement was met with opposition, as a lot of the region’s elite were not fond of the idea of paying for another child’s education. It took almost ten years for the fight to be over, but in 1847, Hartford Public High School was finally created, the new school absorbed the old Hartford Grammar School, and was open to women. At it was reported at the time, "A free high school for instruction in the higher branches of an English, and the elementary branches of a classical education, for all the male and female children of suitable age who want to advance in life" (Hartford 15). This decision propelled an already leading institution into a prominent place in history.

Hartford Public High School First Building

Women and Hartford Public High School

In the above-mentioned statement regarding the formation of Hartford Public High School, women were finally granted access to a valuable education in Hartford, CT, although they were not provided the exact same curriculum and outcomes as their male counterparts. “As a coeducational institution, the school enrolled 137 female and 122 male students during its first year. Boys and girls received their education in common, although the school retained a separate section for thirty-two boys to receive a classical education from the Hartford Grammar School ("Work, Domesticity" 108). Likewise, the most esteemed route upon graduation for the male attendees was enrollment into Harvard University or Yale University, however neither of these schools admitted female students until the early to mid 20th century. Despite the differential in educational opportunities while in school, many women who served as teachers at the high school, and by virtue of their position became prominent members of the community. Teed explained:

Hartford’s common schools, especially Hartford Public High School which opened in 1847, lured women teachers from all over New England and challenged the dominance of the private academies. In fact, the Hartford Female Seminary was finally forced to close in the 1860s because the public high school effectively rendered it obsolete ("Work, Domesticity" 108).

Accordingly, “working at Hartford Public was the highest paying teaching job for women in Hartford and also the most prestigious” ("Work, Domesticity" 113). Hartford Public High School became an avenue for women to advance or affirm their place in society, as both Hartford’s elite and the rising talent of the region culminated at this one location. Those elite families who had worked hard to create the high school attempted to ensure its success by offering to potential teachers like Sophia Stevens an attractive package that included not just employment at the school, but also access to Hartford’s social amenities ("If I Only", 126).

Many women who taught at Hartford Public High School were housed in the homes of the upper-class, and were directly introduced into elite spaces, practically celebrated for their contributions. Potentially, Hartford Public High School can be considered a site for the social advancement of women, simultaneous to other social crusades commanded by women of the time, like abolitionist and suffragist movements.

Final Thoughts

By the end of the 19th century, Hartford Public High School was easily distinguishable as not only one of the premier institutions in state, but one of the best schools in the entire nation. The relationship between Yale University and the school was practically cemented by this time, in a Chicago newspaper recognizing the best and brightest of the junior class of Yale University in 1892, five of the top twenty students were graduates of Hartford Public High School. The school was thriving, it was considered by the city to be the “very best opportunity, for either life work or preparation for college and university” (Hartford Post 12). The majority of the city’s public officials and business leaders were graduates of Hartford Public High School, proof of the school’s pipeline to prominence position in the state. Overall, Hartford Public High School’s development, as a small colonial establishment for teaching biblical literacy, to a widely renowned leader in education is an essential marker and key part of Hartford’s story of becoming a wonderful city.

Works Cited

Hartford in 1912 : Story of the Capitol City, Present and ... The Hartford Post, 1912, https://archive.org/details/hartfordin1912st00hart/page/n6/mode/2up. Accessed 8 May, 2020.

Teed, Melissa L. Work, Domesticity and Localism: Women's Public Identity in Nineteenth-Century Hartford, Connecticut, University of Connecticut, Ann Arbor, 1999.

---."‘If I Only Wore a Coat and Pants’: Gender and Power in the Making of an American Public High School, 1847–1851." Gender & History 16.1 (2004): 123-145.

Bushnell, Horace, Leonard Kennedy, and J. S. Eaton. "COMMON SCHOOLS IN CITIES. CITY OF HARTFORD." Connecticut Common School Journal (1838-1853) 4.1 (1841): 5-18.

“Hartford High School.” New England Journal of Education, vol. 2, no. 14, 1875, pp. 172–173. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44767608. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Quadrennial Catalogue of the Hartford Public High School, 1904. Hartford Press, 1905.

Grizzell, Emit Duncan. Origin and Development of the High School in New England before 1865. Macmillan Co., 1923.

"High Schools and Yale Scholars. Relative Excellence of a High School Fit for a College Course." Daily Inter Ocean, vol. XX, no. 313, 31 Jan. 1892, p. 31. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers,  Accessed 7 May 2020.

Lewis, Oliver. "Advertisement." Connecticut Courant, no. 870, 25 Sept. 1781, p. [3]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers. Accessed 7 May 2020.

"[England; Grammar; Town; Hartford; Citizens; Trustees; Hartford; Latin]." Connecticut Mirror, vol. XIX, no. 43, 14 July 1828, p. [3]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Hartford Public High School: “Quinquennial Catalogue”, 1910. Hartford, 1910

Acts and Laws, Made and Passed in and by the General Court Or Assembly of the State of Connecticut. United States, n.p, 1837.

Strong, Nehemiah. "Hartford, January 13, 1769." Connecticut Courant, no. 213, 16 Jan. 1769, p. [1]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers. Accessed 7 May 2020.



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