Record: Caria Celi Chaves Vasconcelos, “Domestic Education in Nineteenth Century Brazil: Aspects of European Influence on the Performance of Tutors and Private Teachers” in Social and Education History 2, no. 1 (2013): 1-22.
Summary: Vasconcelos, a professor of History of Education and Educational Policies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the Catholic University of Petrópolis, here describes female tutors who worked in the homes of well-to-do 19th century Brazilian families.
Vasconcelos looks at advertisements both of tutors offering their services and families seeking tutors in Brazilian newspapers between 1839 and 1899, along with other documentary sources, to make generalizations about who these tutors were and what they did. Before 1850 men were as desirous as women, but after 1850 the strong preference was for women, especially older women, and an increasing emphasis was placed on qualifications. By 1870 the field was nearly uniformly a woman’s domain, and it was clear from the sheer quantity of advertisements that the number of families employing at-home tutors had grown considerably as the fashion spread among the growing Brazilian middle class. Brazilian families eagerly sought foreign-born women fluent in a European language other than Portuguese, especially French.
From the details of the advertisements Vasconcelos reconstructs who these women were. First and foremost, they were white, mostly immigrants from Europe. Brazil was a slave-holding society with sharp racial hierarchies and a long history of using slaves as nannies. A key concern of the tutors themselves was that they be considered by the families they served as distinct from servants and slaves. Many of these tutors were the offspring of illicit relationships among European aristocracy and thus were ineligible for a good marriage given their lack of dowry and inheritance rights, or perhaps they were daughters of families whose income no longer matched their pedigree. These were women who had the education and tastes of the upper classes but not the means to indulge them. Given the financial opportunities of the colonies, these women immigrated to Brazil to find work.
Tutors typically worked out a curriculum with parents. Portuguese and French instruction were the priorities, though any number of subjects might be added to the mix, including gender-specific studies like sewing/music/dance for the girls and science/maths for boys. In some very wealthy families a head tutor served as governess, managing several other adjunct tutors who taught the children of the family various subjects. Memoirs and fictional stories written by the children taught by these women sometimes depict their former tutors as firm or even sadistic, but just as often they are described with respect and nostalgic affection.
One problem faced by these tutors was that once the children in their charge were grown, the teachers were dismissed. If they were young and well they would seek another family to serve, but eventually age or illness claimed them and they ended up in rest homes or other charity institutions.
After peaking in the 1870s the number of tutors gradually declined in the 1880s and 1890s with the growth of private and then government schooling. By the 20th century only the wealthiest and most geographically isolated families continued to employ live-in tutors.
The content of this article is very interesting. Professional historians will likely be underwhelmed by its weak historiographical framework, its failure to situate the experiences of these tutors in a broader historical context, and the lack of an interpretive component teasing out the significance of it all. But Vasconcelos does provide accurate and important information about these women drawn from a wide range of sources, providing wonderful material on which other historians can draw. Her theme serves as a prescient reminder that for centuries what we now term “homeschooling” was prosecuted, at least among wealthy families, by adults unrelated to the children in the homes in which they were working.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College