The Patapsco Female Institute (PFI), located on Church Road with a commanding view of Ellicott City, was one of the most famous and prestigious schools for girls in 19th century America. The school officially opened its doors in 1837 under Reverend J. H. Tyng's leadership with a basic curriculum of English , the classics, foreign language, and natural and abstract sciences. In 1838, Mrs. Mary Norris became principal and expanded the curriculum to include modern history, chemistry, and botany, as well as classes in the arts, including piano, painting, and guitar. Despite the expanded curriculum, enrollment did not grow as quickly as the school's founders hoped. In 1841, Bishop Whittingham of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland persuaded Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps to take charge of the struggling school. Mrs. Phelps was a nationally known educator at the time, a teacher at the Troy Academy in New York (which was run by her sister, Emma Willard) where she published a successful book, Lincoln's Botany.
Under Mrs. Phelps' direction, PFI flourished as a leading educational institution for young women. From 1842 through 1856, attendance rose steadily, the curriculum expanded, and the school became financially successful.
Mrs. Phelps and her husband provided significant funds of their own to improve facilities. PFI gained a national reputation for its high academic standards in areas of natural history, mathematics and the sciences. It was the first institution to teach mathematics to girls and, for many of the years that Mrs. Phelps was principal, was able to attract over 100 students, an impressive number at the time. Mrs. Phelps retired after the death of her daughter in 1856.She continues to be recognized as one of the most influential educators of women in the 19th century.
Mr. Robert Archer assumed the principal position after Mrs. Phelps, and PFI remained successful under his leadership until the start of the Civil War. Unfortunately, matriculation at school dropped quickly during the Civil War and did not recover in its aftermath. One theory for the decline is that students from the south, who prior to the war had enrolled in significant numbers no longer felt safe attending a northern school. The school remained open, however, and, after Mr.Archer's retirement in 1872, his wife Mary Ringgold Archer, took over as principal.
In 1878, Sarah Randolph, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, became principal. PFI was forced to close in 1891, due to the continued decline in enrollment.
Almost 100 years later, in 1955, in recognition of the important role the school played in educating young women, the abandoned ruins of the PFI were stabilized, creating the scenic memorable setting here today.
The Patapsco Female Institute is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Women's Heritage Trail due to both its historical significance as a leader of 19th century education for women and its historic physical structures.
This sign is sponsored by the Howard County Women's Bar Association to mark a significant location on Maryland Women's Heritage Trail. The Women's Heritage Trail identifies locations throughout the State are important in women's history.