A Quiet Revolution: Exploring 18th-Century Women’s Education through Sally Franklin and Polly Stevenson

The eighteenth century was a period of great change in many aspects, one of which was women’s education. The Enlightenment ignited the idea that men and women were created equal, though assigned to different responsibilities1. While women’s sphere of influence was still limited to mostly motherhood and domestic duties, there developed a greater sense of value of these roles, and the work women could do within these spheres expanded. The influence mothers had over their children, particularly sons, was seen as a powerful force, and so women began receiving a wider education to better train the next generation of leaders and statesmen2. Both Mary “Polly” Stevenson Hewson and Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache carefully mastered challenging the status quo for women’s roles, all without ever causing a stir for leaving the female domain. Both women used their education to bring many traditionally-male duties into the feminine sphere and claim them as their own. 

The typical education for a middle-to-upper class girl of the eighteenth century would encompass several disciplines, almost always taught at home by their mothers to prepare them for a life centred around the family and domestic duties3. Included in this curriculum was the traditionally feminine needlework, which was a practical skill as well as a beautifying one–it provided a way to demonstrate their refined tastes, but also meant that clothes could be mended instead of purchased new and served also as a means of income4. Polly was evidently a skilled knitter, as Franklin thanked her in a 1759 letter for a pair of garters, which he called “the finest, neatest and prettiest that were ever made!”5. Franklin was less complimentary of Sally’s work, though he often encouraged her to “spin & knit your Family Stockings,”6 frequently hoping she would contribute to the Franklin home’s domestic economy. Another key component of typical female education was reading, especially religious materials to perfect their moral development7. This was one of Franklin’s main focuses for Sally’s early education, writing to his wife that “I hope she continues to love going to Church, and would have her read over and over again the whole Duty of Man and the Lady’s Library”8. The Whole Duty of Man was an Anglican devotional book, and The Lady’s Library was probably an anthology of moral readings9; both works were likely meant to produce a Christian and feminine disposition. Both women may have also read women’s periodicals, such as The Lady’s Magazine, which covered secular subjects like fashion, romance, and education10.

A portrait of Sally Franklin.

Sally (1743-1808) was Franklin’s daughter. She stayed behind in the American colonies with her mother, Deborah, while Franklin was abroad in London for 16 years.

While Franklin certainly advocated for the components of a traditional female education for Sally in her teens, it seems that her studies may have had more of a radical start. In 1751, when Sally was eight years old, Deborah wrote a letter to Margaret Strahan ordering a set of books requested by Franklin to begin his daughter’s education. The curriculum included “1 Doz of Fomiliar Formes [sic.] Latin and Eng,”  “1 Boyles Pliny,” and “6 Sets of Nature Displayd in 7 Volums [sic.],”11. These works prove that Sally was intended to learn Latin, philosophy, and some elements of biology, all of which were certainly not on the syllabus for the typical 18th-century girl, as these subjects were decidedly reserved for the male sphere. It does not seem, however, that the Franklins stuck to this revolutionary approach to Sally’s education, as by her early teens, there are no documented references to her study of any of these subjects. It seems instead that she diverted to the traditionally-female track of education, with studies of religion, French, and harpsichord12. It is unknown why her curriculum might have seen such a drastic shift, but it might have been due to Franklin’s frustrations with her progress. When Sally was thirteen years old, Franklin wrote to Deborah: “I should have read Sally’s French Letter with more Pleasure, but that I thought the French rather too good to be all her own Composing. I suppose her Master must have corrected it,”13. Franklin was evidently sceptical of his daughter’s abilities. Throughout Sally’s upbringing, Franklin seemed to be doubtful and critical towards her learning, often correcting her spelling or censuring her work ethic. He did, however, consistently encourage her to learn household accounting and arithmetic which, though intended for domestic use, were traditionally skills included in a male curriculum. It seemed that instead of an academic, Franklin saw Sally’s role as a future wife and mother, often reminding her to focus on these skills as “it is of the more Importance for you to think seriously of this, as you may have a Number of Children to educate”14.

While Sally embraced these domestic roles, marrying Richard Bache in 1767 and bearing eight children, she also used the practical skills acquired in her education to become a political activist. A patriot, Sally became a key member of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, raising funds to support the American Revolution and organising an effort to sew over two-thousand shirts for soldiers at Valley Forge15. While for most of her life Sally, like most eighteenth-century women, was designated training to become a mistress of domestic duties, she pulled her skills of needlework, organisation, and management out of the home and used them in the male-dominated political world. Utilising the arts that society permitted to women, Sally’s tactic was not inflammatory or blatantly disruptive to the gender norms, but it allowed her to lead a quiet revolution by expanding feminine skills out of the home and into a politically-fraught war.

Polly Stevenson’s educational background before her introduction to Franklin at age eighteen is relatively unknown. Due to her situation in life and proficiency at writing and needlework, as evidenced through her letters to Franklin, it can be assumed that she had at least a similar traditional home education to Sally. Polly, unlike Franklin’s daughter, had great interest in academic subjects like philosophy, engineering, and natural science; in 1760, at age twenty-one, Polly asked Franklin to tutor her in these subjects in their correspondence. Franklin agreed, but questioned her motivation, asking, “but why will you, by the Cultivation of your Mind, make yourself still more amiable, and a more desirable Companion for a Man of Understanding, when you are determin’d, as I hear, to live Single?”16 As he did with Sally, Franklin saw a woman’s education as a training for life as a wife or mother, fearing that this extensive course of study had no purpose if Polly did not use it as a means to catch an academically-inclined husband.

A portrait of Polly Stevenson.

Polly (1739-1795) was the daughter of Franklin’s landlady in London. She was like an adopted daughter to Franklin and corresponded with him for the rest of his life.

He later seemed to change his mind, admiring Polly’s scholastic aptitude and appreciation of learning: “After writing 6 Folio Pages of Philosophy to a young Girl, is it necessary to finish such a Letter with a Compliment? Is not such a Letter of itself a Compliment? Does it not say, she has a Mind thirsty after Knowledge, and capable of receiving it; and that the most agreable Things one can write to her are those that tend to the Improvement of her Understanding?”17 Polly led her course of study for the most part, with Franklin initiating only a brief survey of French philosophy18. Polly inquired about and studied entomology, geothermal heating, gravity, the tidal patterns of rivers, the distillation of salt water, the electrification of storm clouds, the polarisation of water molecules, and pathology.

Perhaps this final interest provided the connection with her later-husband, anatomist William Hewson. Polly wrote to Franklin, “I met with a very sensible Physician [Hewson] yesterday, who prescribes Abstinence for the Cure of Consumption. He must be clever because he thinks as we do”19. It is revealed in her second sentence that Polly views herself as a scientist of her own right, an equal to both Franklin and Hewson. Despite not being offered formal opportunities to train in science, by seeking out Franklin as a mentor, Polly created her own way of studying the subject in a way that would not upset the societal gender norms. Through her marriage to Hewson, she was able to bring the sciences into the household sphere; her husband opened a school of comparative and human anatomy at their 36 Craven Street home. While there exist no records proving Polly’s direct interaction with the school, it is difficult to believe that such an inquisitive and scientific mind would have never watched the operations or engaged with her husband’s theories on haematology when these many experiments took place under her own roof. Perhaps Polly used society’s prescription of marriage as a way to bring scientific study into her own sphere of access.

Franklin’s close involvement in supervising the education of both young women was highly unusual for the eighteenth-century, as the role was typically reserved for mothers to impart domestic skills on their daughters. While he still subscribed to the idea of Republican Motherhood–that their educations were a training only to be excellent wives and to educate their own sons one day–Franklin was a proponent of expanding the realm of education for women, as seen in his studying sciences with Polly and originally assigning Sally a curriculum of Latin and philosophy. Sally and Polly, however, were the opportunists who each saw a chance to challenge what they could do with their education. Sally brought her skills from the home into the male political sphere as an activist, and Polly brought the male scientific sphere into her home as the wife to a physician. Both women were able to cleverly subvert the societal prescriptions for women’s roles, by delicately merging the education of a homemaker with traditionally-male spheres.

By Emily Anne Harris



Frankly Speaking 2023

Ben’s Birthday Bash!

Literary Prize 2022 Winner and Runner-up Announcement

Each year a question or quote exploring Franklin’s relevance in our time is open for interpretation in 1000-1500 words. The competition is exclusively for young writers, aged 18-25, with a first prize of £750, and a second prize of £500.

This year, our quote for interpretation was;

‘The Eyes of other People are the Eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses nor Fine Furniture.’ Letter to Benjamin Vaughan, 1784.

We received some excellent entries to our 2022 Prize and we are proud to announce the names of the two young writers that were voted as the winner and runner-up by our team of judges;

Winner – Daniel Bresland

Daniel is 23 and from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He has just begun a PhD in English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast.

Runner-up – George White

George is 25 and from Derbyshire, England. He is a graduate of Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Broadcast and Journalism. He is currently the Editor of the Nottingham-based arts and culture magazine LeftLion, which has a readership of around 50,000.

If you would like to read their entries for the 2022 Prize, please click on their names to view their work.

In March 2023, the winner, runner-up and other shortlisted writers will be invited to Benjamin Franklin House for a special award ceremony to receive their prizes and meet the judging panel for the 2022 Prize.

The 2022 Literary Prize Judges are;

  • Dr. Márcia Balisciano, Director of Benjamin Franklin House
  • Lord Guy Black, Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group
  • Wendy Moore, English journalist, author, and historian
  • Dr. Huw David, Development Director at Wolfson College, University of Oxford
  • Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group and Board Member of Benjamin Franklin House

We would like to congratulate those on our shortlist as well as everyone who entered this year’s Prize.

If you are interested in participating in our 2023 Literary Prize, please look out for announcements on our website. The quote for next year’s competition will be announced at the 2022 award ceremony and posted shortly after.

eGazette – December 2022

Please click HERE to read our newsletter from October-December 2022!

Family & Education Events Calendar 2023

Our 2023 Event Calendar is here!

Throughout the year, Benjamin Franklin House hosts a wide variety of fun-filled family events for all to enjoy!

View/Download a PDF of our calendar: Education Events Calendar 2023

Join us as we celebrate the major holidays such as EasterHalloween and Christmas with an 18th century twist.

We also celebrate some of the biggest US holidays of the year with celebration events for the 4th July and Thanksgiving.

In May, we will also be holding a special Coronation Celebration as part of the city-wide celebrations for the coronation of King Charles III. At Benjamin Franklin House, we will look back at the coronation of King George III, an event that Franklin was able to attend in person, as well as some other famous kings and queens of England from the past 1000 years of history!

Our new afterschool Science Club will also be kicking off in January, with monthly sessions until July. Each session will focus on a different topic in the KS2/3 Science curriculum including Electricity, Forces, the Human Body and Sound.

Finally, our Summer Season of Family Events will return in August with a weekly series of fun workshops that explore skills in CalligraphyArchaeology and Portraiture.

Please note: Booking for each event will open roughly one month in advance. Specific dates for TBC events will be released roughly two months in advance.

View/Download a PDF of our calendar: Education Events Calendar 2023

Literary Prize 2022 Shortlist

Parties, Cakes & Mistletoe: A Georgian Christmas

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas” – Benjamin Franklin

Read on as we explore the Georgian Christmas practices of holiday cakes, large parties, mistletoe décor, and other beloved Christmas traditions that Benjamin Franklin and the residents of 36 Craven Street likely enjoyed.

How did Benjamin Franklin and the residents of 36 Craven Street celebrate the Christmas season?

After Christmas’s banishment from English society in 1644 by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, Christmas did not regain its place as one of the most beloved holidays in English society until the Georgian and Victorian eras.  Georgian Christmas was a time of balls, parties, courtship, and family gatherings that stretched from December 6th (St Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night).

English gentry spent their Christmas season in country estates and houses, while the rest of English society enjoyed a day from work as Christmas was a national holiday. Christmas day would be spent at church before indulging in a lavish or hearty Christmas meal full of traditional foods. Typically Christmas meals served goose, turkey, or venison depending on social class and financial status followed by a Christmas pudding, mimicking King George I’s first Christmas dinner which served plum pudding in 1714. Mince Pies would accompany the Christmas meal but, unlike today, these would be semi-savoury and made from ground meat, normally beef or tongue, with sweet currants. 

On the 26th, St Stephen’s Day, the staff would have the day off whilst the household would recover from the food and drinks. People would donate to charity and the upper classes would gift their staff Christmas Boxes, which is where the term Boxing Day comes from (first used in the 1830s).

Decorating for Georgian Christmastime

All social classes would decorate their homes with traditional decorations such as evergreens, fruits and ribbons. This was not done until Christmas Eve, however, because it was considered unlucky to decorate before then. Kissing boughs and balls were also popular, usually made from holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary and decorated with spices, apples, oranges, candles or ribbons. In very religious households,  families did not use mistletoe due to its scandalous connotations!

A cosy fire was an important component of Georgian Christmas. A Yule log, chosen on Christmas Eve and wrapped in hazel twigs was dragged home by horse to burn in the fireplace for the 12 days of Christmas. It would be put out on the first Monday after the Twelfth Night, also called Plough Monday, for good luck in the New Year. A piece of the log would be kept back to light again the following Christmas. 

Nowadays, however, most households have chocolate Yule logs rather than wood. We’re not complaining!

Twelfth Night Christmas Celebration

January 6th or Twelfth Night signalled the end of the Christmas season and was celebrated by a Twelfth Night party with party games, dancing, drinking and eating.

The Twelfth Cake, which gave rise to today’s Christmas cake, was the highlight of the party and a slice was given to all members of the household. Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea to elect a man as king for the night, and a woman as queen. In wealthy households, staff would generously also be offered a piece of the Twelfth Cake. 

The Twelfth night would also include Wassailing – a hot, mulled punch. Wassailing dates back to the Anglo-Saxon era and has evolved over the years.

There were different types of Wassailing, depending on location and social class. For wealthy households, a Wassail bowl would be passed around guests for everyone to take a sip and toast the next person. From the 1600s, poor households would take a Wassail bowl containing a mulled ale drink known as Lamb’s Wool around the streets. People would be offered a drink in exchange for money. From the late 16th century, Wassailing in some regions would incorporate a visit to an orchard with song and dance underneath the trees to wake them and encourage them to produce a good crop the next year.

After the Twelfth Night celebration, families took down all the decorations and burned all the greenery to avoid bad luck in the New Year. Even today, many people superstitiously take down all their Christmas decorations before 6th January. 

Plough Monday (the first Monday after the Twelfth Night) was more commonly celebrated in agricultural areas. Farm labourers would paint their faces black with soot and pull a decorated plough around the more affluent houses in their local villages in exchange for money.

Where’s our month-long holiday?!

The extended Christmas season disappeared after the Regency period by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of the rural life. Employers needed workers to continue working throughout the holiday season, creating the shortened Christmas period of today. Tragic. 

To learn more about Georgian Christmas here at Craven Street, join our free, Virtual Talk: Christmas at Craven Street on Wednesday 14 December 2022 – 5pm GMT/12pm ET!