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Patapsco Female Institute collection

 Collection 0499-MDHC

The Patapsco Female Institute was a finishing school for women which operated from 1837 to 1891 in Ellicott City, Maryland. From 1841 to 1856, it was run by the noted educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps. The Patapsco Female Institute Collection is comprised of programs for events at the Institute, as well as a manuscript book of compositions written by the students, advertisements for the lotteries benefitting the Institute, and images of the building.


  • 1846-1960
  • Majority of material found within 1846-1883


9 Items

Content Description

The Patapsco Female Institute Collection contains event programs for a concert/graduation and a play displaying the talents of the students of the Institute, as well as a manuscript book of compositions written by the students, advertisements for and a ticket from lotteries to fund the Institute and images of the building. One of the images, an etching, -- was created after the school closed (it is labeled "The Hilltop Theatre," which was active from the 1930s to the 1950s). The collection is arranged in chronological order.

Biographical / Historical

The Patapsco Female Institute was a finishing school for women which operated from 1837 to 1891. The school was the second of its kind in the country. The land for the school was donated by the founders of Ellicott's Mills (later renamed Ellicott City), John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott.

The 57-room granite building was designed by Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long, Jr. and built by Charles Timanus. The building cost slightly more than $12,000 to complete. Initially, the Institute was financed by a combination of state grants and private funding. When the school began operating, it was paid $800 a year by the state of Maryland for eight full scholarships for students training to be teachers. The state of Maryland established a scholarship program in 1824 that required all educational institutions receiving money from the state to financially support one student in poverty for each $100 the institution received.

Students at the school ranged in age from 12 to 18 and were instructed in many academic topics, including chemistry and foreign languages. The Institute was the first school to teach mathematics to girls. Students came from both the North and the South to be educated at the Institute. At its peak, the school educated 150 students.

The first head of the school was Reverend J. H. Tyng. Initially the Institute had a limited curriculum of English, the classics, foreign languages, and science. Mary Norris became the principal of the school in 1838 and expanded the course of study to include arts, modern history, and chemistry. Celebrated educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps was headmistress of the Institute from 1841 to 1856, raising the reputation of the school. Prior to working at the school, Phelps was a teacher at the Troy Academy in New York, where she had written Lincoln's Botany and popular textbooks.

In 1856, a chapel wing designed by N.G. Starkwether was added to the building. An increase in students also led to the addition of dormers over the portico to enlarge the dormitory area.

Enrollment suffered during the Civil War and the school even closed for a period. After the war, the student body never fully recovered in numbers and the school closed in 1891. The building has since served as a hotel, private house, hospital for wounded World War I veterans, and summer theatre (the Hilltop Theatre). In the 1960s, the building was deemed a fire hazard and all wooden materials were removed, leaving only the exterior intact. The Howard County Commissioners bought the building in 1966. The ruins were stabilized between 1993 and 1995 with funding from the Maryland Historical Trust. The Patapsco Female Institute site is now a historic park, administered by the Recreation and Parks department of Howard County, Maryland.

Famous people associated with the Institute include principal Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps; Jefferson Davis' daughter, Winne Davis, who was an alumna; Sally Randolph, great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, who was a headmistress of the school; and former Maryland governor Thomas Watkins Ligon, who was the school's president after leaving politics in 1857.

Custodial History

The two event programs were purchased from Bookworm and Silverfish in August 2013. The two images were donated to the Libraries by James G. and C. Mary Holland in August 2013. The lottery ticket and the lottery advertisements from 1852 and 1856 were obtained by the Libraries from an unknown source at an unknown date. The composition volume and the lottery advertisement were formerly in the Maryland Manuscripts collection and were transferred to this collection.

Related Materials

Special Collections and University Archvies also holds the papers of Celia Holland, a local history writer. Her papers include information about the institute and its students (including names of specific students), as well as about the building and its history after the school closed. The Holland papers also include many photographs of the Institute taken from 1959-1970.

Related Archival Collections Held by Other Institutions:

The University of Maryland Libraries also holds several publications of the Patapsco Female Institute, including: Other books held by the Libraries concerning the Patapsco Female Institute include: The Libraries also hold several books which contain more information about Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, including:


The following sources were consulted in writing the historical note on the Patapsco Female Institute.

Processing Information

The collection was rehoused in acid-free folders and placed in acid-free boxes.

Guide to the Patapsco Female Institute collection.
Processed by Maya Riser-Kositsky.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Library Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives

University of Maryland Libraries
Hornbake Library
4130 Campus Drive
College Park Maryland 20742