What if the Needle Isn’t Even in the Haystack?

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
January 10, 2023

Research into the Morristown Sewing School, its 56 known teachers, and 487 known students, which I first began in the summer of 2020, is nearing completion. There have been hard-fought triumphs (75% of students were successfully traced from birth to death), memorable life stories both hilarious and heartbreaking, and disappointing brick walls. That last one hits hard because, despite all tenacity, a key aspect of the school’s history has eluded discovery: its origins and creators. Although a monumental volunteer endeavor by ladies from the upper echelons of Morristown society, documentation beyond the 45 teacher’s books now held by MCHS was absurdly spotty. To date, I have only located two brief news items and a short report to the state board of education from the school’s decade-long lifespan. Unfortunately, surviving local media from the time of its founding are disappointingly silent.

The only two known news articles to mention the school during its lifespan.

The first classes were held in November 1879 when Morristown had two local newspapers, The Jerseyman and the Morris County Chronicle. Not a single sentence in any of The Jerseyman’s weekly issues from that year make reference to it. Higher hopes were pinned on editions of the Morris County Chronicle and its delightful tendency to report on even the minutiae of local life, but frustratingly very few pre-1898 issues are known to exist. In fact, only four issues from 1879 are available online or at any public institution. While other issues, now seemingly lost, may have contained the information sought, those four were also sadly void of details.

As we prepare a mini exhibit on the school, opening February 12, 2023, there are happily many tales we can still tell of the society women who dedicated their time, the tradesmen’s daughters who attended, and the two hours they shared on Saturday mornings from November to May each year. We know many of the lessons taught, which classes teachers instructed, where they were held, and who attended. There is, however, one facet that will—for now— remain unknown and a reminder that the historical record is not perfectly complete.

Many of the 487 identified students lived their entire lives in the Morristown area. If one of the women here is a member of your family tree, we would love to hear from you! MCHS is also eagerly seeking any photographs of the students, particularly in their younger years. Email us at [email protected] or call 973-267-3465.