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Sarah Francis Fisher Archer: Principal of Hannibal's first public high school 1866

Regarding fashion and education in a bygone era

Mary Lou Montgomery

A hundred and two years ago, a respected educator with early ties to Hannibal spoke out on the outrageous fashion “fads” influencing the high school girls in her charge.

“We find them wearing low shoes with thin stockings that do not cover the bare flesh on their ankles,” Mrs. Sara F. Asher told the Oregonian newspaper for an article published on June 3, 1912.

Mrs. Asher, at the time of the article a high school mathematics teacher in Spokane, Wash., continued. “Their dresses were made so low in winter as positively to endanger their health.”

History proves that Mrs. Archer’s advice to mothers that they take charge of their daughters’ fashion choices certainly didn’t reverse the trend away from conservative fashion as the nation moved toward the Roaring Twenties.

But Mrs. Asher’s outspoken thoughts on education, combined with a mastery of the language born of a proper grammar and secondary education, made her voice respected in her field of expertise.

The story of her educational career was among those solicited and published by the Society for the Advancement of Education 1922. Mrs. Archer described her early years as an educator in Hannibal, Mo., in an article titled, “The Public School, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

“After a year’s experience as first assistant in an excellent grammar school I was persuaded by friends of my parents to accept the principalship of the high school in Hannibal,” Mrs. Asher – who prior to her marriage was Sara Francis Fisher – wrote.

She described Hannibal 1867. “Missouri was a border slave state. This was soon after the Civil War, and the public school had been in existence only four months. It was looked upon with disfavor by the majority of the people, who were of pronounced southern sentiment and considered the free school a northern innovation.”

The high school was located on second floor of Melpontain Hall, a two-story brick building at 200 N. Third St., the site on which the current Hannibal Courier-Post building is located.

Two topics that were off limits for classroom discussion were the Civil War and slavery. “These things were so fresh in our minds then,” she wrote. They were not to be mentioned even though “blazoned across the front (of the building) was the sign ‘Slaves Bought and Sold,’ for the Melpontain Hall had been a slave market before the war.”

She remembered that her classroom held 60 girls and 100 boys – or men. “Some of them were older than the teacher,” she noted.

“I was only 21, and not much to look at, not having attained the corporosity of later years. The most delicate question was how to convince the older pupils, without wounding their pride, that their teacher could not accept their escort to evening services, church socials and strawberry festivals.

“Another problem was to persuade some of the boys that they must not chew tobacco in school and decorate the floor with their expectorations.”

Mrs. Asher’s biography was included in Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. Born in Illinois, she graduated from Rockford, Ill., Seminary in 1886. She taught prior to her marriage to George Archer, and after his death in 1889.

Find A Grave reports she died Nov. 12, 1938, and is buried at Fairmount Memorial Park, Spokane, Washington.

Mrs. Sarah F. Archer honored at tea, The Spokesman-Review - Feb 4, 1938,976159

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