Westtown is believed to be the oldest, continuously operating coeducational boarding school in the country.
Westtown School first welcomed students in May 1799. Members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established the all-boarding school so that their children might have a “guarded education,” one based on useful learning in a setting that promoted mindfulness of God’s continuous presence. Our campus is still comprised of the original 600 acres purchased in 1794 when travel to the new school in Chester County was a full day’s ride from Philadelphia.
Quaker outreach brought international students to campus beginning in the early 1900s. Non-Quakers were admitted for the first time in 1933, and the student body became more culturally, racially and economically diverse in years following. Younger students have always been part of Westtown, first as boarders, then as day students. Lower School was given a permanent home on its present site in 1936. Middle School, then consisting of grades 7 and 8, was given its own space in Industrial Hall in 1960. Those facilities were expanded in 1983 when grade 6 was moved from Lower to Middle School.
Visual and performing arts classes added a new dimension to the curriculum in the 1920s. Students were organized into work jobs in the 1940s to help maintain the school during the labor shortage of the war years, the roots of today’s Work Program. Service Network was established in 1978 to engage students in the community beyond Westtown. New buildings began to dot the campus, including the Meeting House in 1929, and structures devoted to physical education, science and the arts.
Westtown School first opened it doors to students in May, 1799. Twenty boys and twenty girls, most in their teens but some as young as eight years old, entered the school from Quaker families living primarily in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area.
Owen Biddle published A Plan for School to encourage members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to establish a boarding school for Quaker children modeled on Ackworth School, founded by the London Yearly Meeting in 1779.
The first students arrived in May 1799 – 20 boys and 20 girls, with more admitted monthly until there were about 200 in all. The school “family” lived and learned in this building designed by Philadelphia architect (and Quaker) David Evans, built with bricks made from clay on the farm. This watercolor, attributed to Abiah Baily, was drawn in 1803 or 1804.
Student Jeremiah Reynolds drew this mariner’s compass and wrote “Plain Sailing” principles on these pages in his exercise book that included his work in algebra and bookkeeping. The school’s curriculum, emphasizing useful skills and knowledge, also challenged him to create a technically correct navigator’s log for a voyage from England to the Island of Madeira, to solve and skillfully illustrate numerous problems in surveying, and to create a model accounts-journal for Westtown School from January 1
This 1840 painting by English painter John R. Smith reveals the fully enlarged Westtown schoolhouse as well as extensive beds, cold frames and arbor in the Boys’ Garden, in front of the building. Boys, girls and teachers could work in their gardens during leisure time, or take walks on paths near the school. Mr. Smith is also credited with introducing the game of cricket to Westtown faculty, a game that would later become a team sport at the school.
A new building was completed in 1869 to add classroom space for boys. First called “The New Building” and later, “Industrial Hall,” it has provided a gymnasium, a wood shop, chemistry and physics labs, a science museum, and even a boys’ dormitory when the original schoolhouse was taken down. This building achieved fame in 1885 when all of its 800 tons was slid 200 feet on lubricated wooden beams to make room for a wing of the new main building.
The first gathering of graduates was held in 1886, after the founding of the Westtown Alumni Association, open only to graduates of the school. The Westtown Old Scholars Association – for any former student – was organized in 1896. The two groups merged into one in 1919, known as it is today, the Westtown Alumni Association.
Two unidentified men inspect the work on the roof above Boys’ End of the new main building under construction. After more than 80 years of heavy use, expansion and repair of the original schoolhouse, Westtown’s governing committee determined that a new building with modern conveniences like electricity and steam heat, would cost less than updating the old. Quaker architect, Addison Hutton, designer of buildings at Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges and Lehigh University, was appointed to draw the final plans.
On the 23rd of June, 1899, the 34 members of the Class of 1899—the largest class yet to graduate from the school—celebrated commencement in a ceremony similar to our graduations today, by hearing selected classmates reading original essays and by receiving their diplomas from the head of school. Westtown had awarded its first diploma in 1862.
The girls’ field hockey team played its first home game (ever!) against another school on December 8, 1906. They hosted Moorestown Friends on a field just outside girls’ end of the main building, and beat them 5-1.
After classes on a cool and cloudy Friday, October the 25th , 1912, close to 100 Westtown alumni, committee members, teachers and students gathered on the water in canoes and on the wharf of the new Lake House to celebrate the official opening of the new Westtown Lake. The three men most responsible for the lake’s creation (visible near the right side of the photo, facing the crowd) made speeches about it, and then Westtown alumnus Joshua L. Baily, donor of the Lake House, welcomed all of them to make good use of this new place for outdoor fun.
Though the land here was first farmed in 1708 and continued in cultivation under the school’s governance beginning in 1795—its dairy was first “modernized” in 1913. The dairy barn built in 1870 (just south of what is now our stadium tennis courts) was dismantled and moved to its current location south of Oak Lane; we see it in this 1913 photo, to the left of and connected to the new, longer and lower cow shed. That shed housed more efficient and sanitary equipment that would meet new standards for milk production. Agricultural classes were added in the 1920s and Westtown students could gain experience by working on the farm.
The first issue of the Westtown school newspaper The Brown & White was published on October 2nd , 1914. Taking the place of the “School and Campus” column in the alumni magazine The Westonian , the student editors hoped that this “experiment” would draw the interest of the whole student body, insuring the ongoing life of the paper. They also hoped to capture the atmosphere at Westtown, so that those who had left the school – former teachers and students – could have the pleasure of re-experiencing Westtown life in heart and mind. The paper has been published continuously since 1914.
Though drawing and painting for accuracy and clarity had been taught at Westtown since its early days, it was not until 1920 that painter George Whitney was brought to the school to create a “modern” art department. This studio with multiple light sources was designed by architect Walter Price, in consultation with Whitney, as part of Bacon Cottage which opened in 1923.
The Westtown Meeting House, a gift of Arthur and Emma Foster Perry, was dedicated on Alumni Day, 1929. Present for the ceremony were the donors (in the photo, seated at center) and special guest First Lady Lou Henry Hoover (seated to the left of Mrs. Perry) along with the largest alumni crowd in the prior history of Alumni Day. As a symbolic commitment to the Quaker roots of the school, the Class of 1902 presented an English ivy plant taken from the Fenny Drayton church where George Fox, early leader of the Quakers, was baptized. The ivy was planted by the new meeting house, and grew on its north wall into the 1980s.
With the coming of the Second World War and the loss of many paid staff at the school, teachers and students worked together to organize teams on three week shifts to do the daily jobs needing to be done around the school. The kitchen and dining room jobs called for teams of numerous students several times a day. The Work Program continues to this day to teach the critical support that any community needs from its individuals, and to promote the dignity of physical labor.
On April 24th , 1952, the Westtown faculty and students held their mock convention for the GOP—the party out of power—on a day of speeches, debates, banners and flag waving, state caucuses, platform fights and vote counts. That year, the contest came down to Ike Eisenhower and California Governor Earl G. Warren, with Gov. Warren, in the end, winning nomination by a vote of 134 to 109. Westtown’s first Mock Convention was held in 1948 and reappeared every 4 years for several decades.
The Lane School, an elementary day school for faculty and campus children that had started in a nearby faculty home, first met in its own building in 1936. After a few expansions, it was renamed the Westtown Lower School in 1958. This 1946 photo centers on the oldest part of the building, which was built on the foundation of a stone barn that had stood on that spot for almost a century.
This well-lit and comfortable two-story extension, added in 1963 to the 1927 Mary Hutton Biddle Library, was designed by architects, Paul M. Cope, Jr. and H. Mather Lippincott, Jr. (both Westtown Class of 1939). At the new structure’s dedication, Librarian Earl Fowler reminded listeners of the far reaching significance of a library as an “instrument attached to the experience, the memory, the unfolding meaning and fate of man.” The library wing won 1 of 3 national Library Buildings Awards co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, the American Library Association, and the National Book Committee in 1964.
Seniors in the class of 1978 spent a day clearing rubbish out of Goose Creek, a tributary of the East Branch of Chester Creek, during Westtown’s first off-campus “Senior Work Day.” In that same year Westtown received a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to establish its “Service Network” which provides transportation, occasions for discussion and reflection, and concrete opportunities for upper schoolers to volunteer at homes for handicapped youth, nursing homes, animal shelters, Quaker weekend work camps, and other sites. Community service has deep roots in the Quaker vision for human life, and has had a rich history going back to the 1930s at Westtown School.
In the 1983-1984 school year, Westtown introduced courses in programming using Apple computers, and by June of that year, had added a room full of Commodore computers as well. In fact, on March 1 of that year, Westtown and George School held their first interscholastic computer-assigned blind-date dance!
In 1960, Westtown moved its 7th and 8th grade classes – then a part of Upper School – into Industrial Hall to create the Westtown Middle School. Sixth grade moved from Lower School to join the Middle School in 1983, after the 1909 playshed for boys that was attached to Industrial Hall was renovated into a two story classroom space.
Westtown celebrated its 200th birthday on May 15, 1999 with a parade of alumni, students, teachers and trustees that proceeded along the whole length of the Main Building, and eventually led to the great tent, 430 feet long and 180 feet wide, accommodating 500 tables for 10 people each. There we heard speeches, student essays, enjoyed the Call of the Decades, saw plays, and sang the Alma Mater. The day was the culmination of a whole year of celebration with symposia at the school and gatherings of Westonians all around the world. There were over 7,400 living alumni at the time of the Bicentennial.
The Westtown Mini Farm was established around the time of the Bicentennial. It overlooks the Westtown School Farm and is a place where students can spend their afternoons after school for a season of planting, cultivating, harvesting and learning about horticulture. Much of the food grown there is enjoyed in our dining room. During seasonal service opportunities, whole classes may spend a day together planting garlic or harvesting potatoes. Student gardens are a tradition at Westtown that goes back to its very beginnings; indeed, both George Fox and William Penn felt that gardens belong at schools, and students belong in gardens.