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I'm researching an article on women's education. The earliest reference I can find to an school describing itself as a 'finishing school' is Miss Porter's School, 1843, in Connecticut.

Is there an earlier use of the term?

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Short answer

As a term used to mean a school for preparing young women to enter fashionable society (or something similar), 'finishing school' seems to have already been in use in the late 1790s. There are also several examples of 'finishing school' used in the 1820s, despite several sources stating that these schools (and use of the term 'finishing school') started later (see here for example).


Details

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use was in 1832. However, looking at the trends of usage in the Collins Dictionary, the first usage was in 1804. Unfortunately, neither dictionary cites where the term was used and the Collins date does not necessarily refer to an institution specifically for young women. kimchi lover found the term used in a 1759 book with reference to clinical physicians (see comment below).

The Irish novelist Lady Morgan uses the term in her memoirs. Although published in 1862, Lady Morgan states specifically the term used at the time she attended (late 1790s) was 'finishing school'. She writes that she was placed

...in the fashionable "finishing school," as it was then called, of Mrs. Anderson....within a few doors of Drogheda House...[in a]...fussy part of Dublin.

From the 1820s, there are several examples. One is for 1828 on the British History Online site. This refers to a finishing school at Acton House in West Acton, London:

Frances Beechey ran a ladies' day and boarding school in 1826 and 1832, described as a boarding and finishing school in 1828 when it was at Acton House, West Acton.

A footnote provides the following source information:

Pigot, Lond. Dir. (1826-7); Com. Dir. (1832-4); Boarding Sch. and Lond. Masters' Dir. (1828), 9.

Also, njuffa (in two comments below) has found two slightly earlier uses of 'finishing school': Joseph Aston, 'A Picture of Manchester' (1826) and Th. Hamilton, 'The Youth and Manhood of Cyril Thornton, vol. 3' (1827).


Other source:

Lady Morgan

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  • The OED, 1928, Vol. IV attests it in Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836-7: "I'll bring in a bill for the abolition of finishing schools." Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 15:13
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    Page 4 of the prefatory essay of a 1759 book The General State of Education... uses the term "finishing school", but perhaps not in the same sense that Dickens did. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 15:52
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    @kimchilover OCR recognizing a long S!
    – Spencer
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 16:59
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    Th. Hamilton, The Youth and Manhood of Cyril Thornton, vol. 3, Boston: Wells and Lilly 1827, p. 16: "'Oh,' replied he, 'she is a very nice, elegant, accomplished and pretty girl, of a respectable family, and only lately returned from a finishing-school in Bath.' 'Hold, Captain Tottenham,' I interrupted,' not a word more. What, marry a girl from a finishing-school! Yes; I'll warrant she's finished enough; young ladies are generally tolerably well.."
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 0:48
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    Joseph Aston, A Picture of Manchester, 3rd ed., Manchester: W. P. Aston 1826, p. 259: " And as well-educated ... men ... have finished their studies at one of the Universities, so the young ladies ... completed theirs under the celebrated Mrs. Blomiley, without which ... it would have been vain for them that any ... man would deem one of them fit to be his wife. Mrs. Blomiley's finishing school was situate in the entry which leads out of Smithy Door into Deansgate ..."
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 1:13

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