Early Education in Tennessee
The rise of women’s education in Tennessee owes a lot to some radical thinkers of their time. In the early 1800s, the belief that a woman should be educated ceased at the point at which the woman would no longer be considered marriage material. Her education typically included embroidery, sewing, decorum, and basic writing. A few of the girls may have received voice lessons, just in case they were lucky enough to meet a man who desired to be sung to sleep each night after finishing his dinner.
Families who desired higher educational pursuits for their daughters could hire a private teacher who boarded with the family and taught all of the children equally, while other families were able to send their daughters to academies or finishing schools. An excess of students and overcrowding on these out-of-state campuses led to the creation of more schools in Tennessee, including The Athenaeum in Columbia.
By 1852, Headmaster Reverend Franklin Smith and The Athenaeum were supporting the educational needs of local families in Columbia and Middle Tennessee. Enthusiasm for women’s education was increasing and our city became the centerpiece for a large part of that growth, as The Athenaeum was actually the third all girls school operating in Columbia at the time.
The students were required to maintain several core classes, along with many extracurriculars available to them. Mastery of a foreign language and a musical instrument were necessary in order to graduate. Some of the advanced science classes were held in the laboratory that is located underground in the basement of the house, which is typically only opened to the public during Halloween tours. Reverend Smith was said to have one of the most comprehensive labs in the South!
Some of the students were as young as middle school age when they began their studies, and the teachings lasted far longer than just their time at school. Women were finding more outlets for their education, and they began to make a place for themselves in the business world after graduation due in large part to the opportunities afforded to them in Columbia.
The Athenaeum Today
Walking through the house, you can still feel the history all around. Visitors are transported back more than 150 years with every step on the original wooden floors and with every look through the unique colored glass. Thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers, The Athenaeum recently finished a fundraising campaign and renovation which provided the house with new paint, additional furnishings, and repairs to the iconic fountain. Completed in 2020, this renovation has returned the former Rectory to its original glory.
Around 95% of the furniture in the house is original to the Rev. Franklin Smith family who continued to live there until the 1970s. Family members have donated the original pieces to the Athenaeum to build upon the historical significance. Several original photos still hang prominently, and the home includes nearly 10,000 volumes from the original library.
When the girls enrolled, they had their own blue chair to use for both school work and mealtimes. The home still has several chairs and the original branding iron used to imprint the name Athenaeum into the backs of each chair. You’ll notice the chairs are much smaller than what would typically be used today.
The main room at the front of the house features a striking antique couch, and on the wall above it is a large oil painting donated from the Smith family that features four family members sitting on that same couch.
The small building outside originally served as the dining area, but during the Civil War it was commandeered by Generals John Schofield and James Negley to be used as their headquarters.
The Athenaeum is closed during the winter, but private tours can still be arranged! The last year has seen fewer visitors and events, therefore fewer dollars have been brought into the home. Whether you’re a group of two or 10, you can safely visit and see what life was like over a century ago for these pioneering women and the educators who believed in them.