J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

William Dall: apprentice schoolteacher, merchant

“Back to School” Week(s) at Boston 1775 comes to a close with this profile of a young schoolteacher caught up in the start of the Revolution.

William Dall was the son of William and Elizabeth (Bradford) Dall, born in Boston on 22 Dec 1753. He prepared for a career in business by attending the town’s Writing School on Queen Street, and apparently became a star student. In 1767, at the age of thirteen, he drew a writing sample, a design of ovals around the words “Viva la Plume,” that’s now part of the Abiah Holbrook collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The following year, William went to work as the assistant to Master John Tileston at the North Writing School in Boston’s North End. He was probably no more than a few months older than the top class in the school. I suspect a large part of his job was cutting pens for the younger boys. The town allocated £34 to Tileston for William’s work, or two-thirds of what it usually paid a full-grown assistant teacher, or “usher.”

In December 1774, Dall turned twenty-one, no longer a minor. He was already seeking to earn some extra money for himself with this advertisement in the 26 Sept Boston Gazette:

Writing and Arithmetic
To be taught in Evenings.
The School to be open’d 1st Monday in October next,
at the Writing School House in Queen-Street,
and to be continued for the Season.
Where due Care will be taken for Instruction in its various Branches as usual, and it is hoped will meet with a like Acceptance, which shall be the Aim of the Subscriber, as Assistant in one of the public Schools.
Six and a half months later, the war began, and Boston’s schools closed. The majority of the schoolteachers sided with the Patriots and left town, seeking some way to support themselves.

Dall went to New Haven, Connecticut, and in the 14 June 1775 Connecticut Gazette announced:
Writing & Arithmetick

William Dall, Respectfully informs the Public, That he has opened school, in the small building adjoining Deacon Abraham Abgur’s house; where youth will be taught the above branches in the most concise and methodical manner:—

He flatters himself, that he shall be able to give satisfaction, as he had been employ’d by the town of Boston, in one of the public schools, for several years past, and hopes he shall merit approbation, as he is determin’d to exert every faculty for the improvement of those put under his care.

N B. Reading and spelling likewise taught at said school.
After the British military left Boston, Dall returned and worked in the public schools until 1777. However, with a much smaller population than before the war, the town didn’t need so many teachers.

Dall became a merchant instead. In 1779 he was the first employer of Thomas Handysyd Perkins, who later became wildly successful in the China trade and opium business. In April 1790, Dall advertised “a general assortment of Spring Goods,” mostly cloth, just imported on the ship Neptune. The 1796 Boston directory listed him as owning a shop on Orange Street and a house on Washington Street.

In 1781 Dall married Mary Parker in the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper’s church; they had two children together, but she died in 1783. In 1791 he married Rebecca Keen in Pembroke, her home town; they had five children.

Dall served as a militia captain in Boston. In 1787 he became a member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, but he never held any office in that private group.

William Dall died on 18 Sept 1829. Some of his correspondence with his sons William and James after 1810 is in the University of Massachusetts library. The Bernard & S. Dean Levy galleries have recently offered portraits of Dall (thumbnail above; note that he’s holding a pen) and his second wife.

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