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The Science Teacher

Mary Bunker, 1828–1893

In choosing the title of the forthcoming book and, by association, the parent website here and nearly everything else connected to this sprawling project, I did not select the subtitle casually or through any sense of bombast. The Gilbreth, Bunker, Delger and Moller families that make up the tree of our principal figures is truly 'an extraordinary American family'—and continues to astound me.

In unraveling the story of a slightly secondary character, Frank's aunt and Martha's artist younger sister Caroline “Kit” Bunker, I encountered another family member who by all my rules and limits should get no more than a passing mention. My rule of thumb is that unless a family member or other figure has a substantial impact on the story of Frank, Lillian and the Dozen, they are given a brief sketch, or less, or simply bypassed in the goal of keeping this book focused. But in this case one brief mention led to one chance discovery led to... well, a family figure who deserves to be remembered.

In sorting out where Caroline Bunker lived from about 1870 through her death in 1906—and as on so many points, the family lore and most accounts that rely on it have some issues—I came across another sister whose story likely has no real impact on ours, but was too exceptional to leave out altogether.

In 1880, in the first or second year of running the Boston boardinghouse, Martha had some 26 boarders and two servants, making the household complement some 31 in all. One of them is a Mary Bunker. Although the census records her age as 48, everything else points to this being Martha and Kit's oldest sister. Mary Bunker was born in 1828 and thus would have been 52, but my experience has been that the hand-collected and -written census data has to be taken with a little flexibility. It is unlikely to me that a woman of this name, approximate age, born in Maine, with two parents born in Maine is just a random Mary Bunker of no connection to our family. (Ages and names in census records are often incorrect; Tom Grieves was once recorded as the family's "butler"; the entire Gilbreth household is recorded on one census as the "Gelbretti" family. QED.)

This would be worth no more mention than the in-law sibling Mary A. Gilbreth, who was an unmarried dressmaker and seamstress of about the same age who lived with Martha and the children in their first year in Boston, boarding with Olivia Gilbreth Flynt and her husband. The most interesting thing I have found about Mary A. is her unusual will, which left everything to her boardinghouse landlady. She was, unfortunately, one of those people who simply existed quietly and left few tracks behind her.

However, Mary Bunker is yet another of the women in the family who were conspicuously ahead of their time in multiple ways, and despite her brief and casual connection to our main subjects, I could not leave her out. At the moment, I can't bring myself to give her a full biographical sidebar in the book, but included her in Kit's entry as, well, a sort of sidebar to a sidebar. That may well change if I soften my firm rules about who's included, and how.

Mary Bunker is listed in all complete genealogical records and all censuses from 1830 to 1880, but it is her brief description in Frank Jr's 1993 Ancestors of the Dozen that first sets her above most of her thirteen siblings. (Martha, Caroline and the oldest son Samuel are the only others of much interest to us.) He says:

“First taught school at age fourteen. Principal of school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Spent twenty-five years as teacher and principal of the Science Hill Female Academy in Shelbyville, Kentucky.”

Ancestors of the Dozen, p.120

As nearly as I can assemble all the census and other data, Mary taught and became the principal in Roxbury by age 21 or 22, then joined the school in Kentucky in about 1845, and likely retired when it was sold to a new administrator in 1879. It is the 1880 census that places her in Boston. Now, 30 years of teaching and serving as principal or headmistress is a truly admirable accomplishment, but it was not extremely unusual for women of the era who had a good education—in this case, Anson Academy, which all of the Bunker children attended—and did not marry.

What is unusual and what places Mary in the category of her sisters and others warranting special attention is that the school was not only a fine, science-focused school in an era when that was a rarity, and not even the rarer institution still that admitted girls, but one exclusive to them. Founded in 1825(!) in what was still a frontier town, its administrator was determined to teach more than the 'gentlewomanly arts' to which girls' education was typically limited; the school did so for some 114 years, 25 early ones under Mary Bunker's contributions. To me, this puts her on a level with Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, Dr. Lillian Delger-Powers, Kit Bunker, Dr. Jane Bunker, Olivia Flynt, Kit, and even Martha as women who were truly exceptional and accomplished in a time that did not much allow or encourage women to be either. So it is with pleasure that I include her, however slight the connection to our main story, and I'm happy to toss her story out here as well.

I won't go into the history of Science Hill Female Academy, as there are two good web resources you can read for yourself:

Neither mentions Mary Bunker, but I am following a lead on an early yearbook/catalog that will surely add some confirmation and details. Check back soon, but for now, read those two histories, and the above, marvel at this exceptional woman, and fully understand that "extraordinary" label I've chosen.

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