Back to School: A Letter from Immaculate Conception Academy, 1873 – Part II

This week we continue with our “back-to-school” theme, learning about the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center resources that help us place Immaculate Conception Academy student Ada Sala’s 1873 letter to her father, E.M. Sala, in historical context.



Imma Conception, Davenport, Iowa, Mar. 5, 1873

Dear Pa,

I received your kind letter and was so glad to hear from you, as it was the first letter I had from you since you were here.

We were examined last week, and I will get a certificate in all of my studies; when we receive our certificates I will send you mine, for I know you will be glad to see one.

Lizzie Blacksmith is coming to live with Mary, because she is not able to do her own work. I think I will write to her this week. Please excuse the shortness of this letter, as I have nothing more of interest. I will conclude with fondest love to all.

Your loving child,

Ada Sala


We are fortunate to have a photocopy of the registration records for Immaculate Conception Academy from 1867-1887 in our collection. Here we find Ada Sala listed among the 24 girls enrolling in September of 1872. The records indicate she is from Rock Island, Illinois. This suggests that Ada’s home base at that time was with her older sister Mary, whom we had previously found to be living in that city then (recently married in 1871 to Henry Boggess, pregnant with her first child Vinnie, and attended by her peer Lizzie Blacksmith from the Salas’ former residence in Lee County, Iowa) thanks to census and family tree information obtained via the Ancestry Library Edition database.

When Ada thanks her father E.M. Sala for writing, saying  “…it was the first letter I had from you since you were here,” we may imagine that “here” was with his other daughter and son-in-law in Rock Island. It is not likely that Ada lived with her sister’s family and traveled back and forth daily to the Academy, since she says “I think I will write to her this week” in reference to Mary. This and the fact that she writes using Academy stationery suggest Ada was one of the 61 “pupils in Boarding School” for the 1872-1873 year.

The registration records (the running title in the ledger is actually “Attendance during Academic Year 1872-73) show that the city of Davenport supplied the majority of the 97 “pupils in in Day School.” Ada’s fellow boarders were girls from LeClaire, Clinton, DeWitt, Iowa City, Wilton, Washington, Bellevue, and McGregor in Iowa; Rock Island, Moline, Geneseo, Prophetstown, Chicago, and several illegible places in Illinois, as well as Mississippi River towns in Wisconsin and Missouri.

Two publications available at the RSSCC, History of the Immaculate Conception Academy of Davenport Iowa…by Sister Mary St. Joan of Arc Coogan, B.V.M. (SC 371.0712 MAR) and Immaculate Conception Academy 1859-1958 (SC377.82 Imm), provide insight into the life of boarding school students like Ada Sala during the 1870’s.

The “Hill House”at Main and 8th Streets in Davenport was occupied by the members of the order that ran the Academy, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is unclear if the boarding school students also lived in the Hill House, but we do know that their classes were held in the “large frame building” just to the north along Main Street. To get there, they “ascended an outside stairway” so as to remain “religiously segregated” from the day students on the first floor (History, 75).

A.T. Andreas’ Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Chicago: Andreas Atlas Co., 1875.

Ada likely received the certificates she mentions in music, drawing, painting, and needlework, as those subjects were available both in the 1860’s and and in the year 1875. The account book kept by Sister Mary Gonzaga McClosky suggests that the study of geography and natural science was also also possible: $20.00 was spent on maps and $199.65 on “Philosophical Apparatus” in 1873 (History, 77).  According to the author of  Immaculate Conception Academy:

“Students of the [18]‘70’s had their grades published in the [student newspaper] Portfolio. A twofold mark was registered: one for ‘excellence of deportment, amiability and politeness’ and another for examination averages (15)”

Students were also required to participate in daily “calisthenic exercise” for which the nuns sewed special “calisthenic suits” (History, 72). Otherwise, Ada and her peers would have worn “high-necked, long-sleeved, ankle-length black dresses” as a uniform (Immaculate, 20).

Ada Sala did not go back to school. Her name does not appear in the registration records after 1873, and in the 1880 Census we find her back in Grant County, Wisconsin, living with her father, his new wife Phoebe, and her younger siblings.

(posted by Katie)

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