The Packer Collegiate Institute: A Story of Education in Brooklyn

The Packer Family

The Packer Family

In November 1854, The Packer Collegiate Institute opened in Brooklyn Heights. The rebuilt school was funded by wealthy Brooklynite Harriet L. Packer (née Putnam) and named in honor of her late husband William Satterlee Packer. The Packers, like many leaders in the emerging city of Brooklyn, were dedicated to helping fund their community’s growth.

William Satterlee Packer was a wealthy businessman and real estate investor who contributed greatly to the growth of Brooklyn in the mid-1800s. Packer was born in the small town of Knox, New York in 1801. Along with his partner John H. Prentice, Packer founded the fur trading company Packer, Prentice & Company in Albany, New York in the 1820s. The successful company later established offices in Manhattan. In 1840, Packer retired from his business and moved to Brooklyn where he used his wealth to buy land and improve the city1. Packer helped found the Brooklyn Female Academy (BFA), as well as the Brooklyn City Hospital and a number of churches.

In 1842, Packer married Harriet Putnam. Putnam was originally from Vermont, but she had moved to Brooklyn at nineteen years old to work as the governess to the children of Packer’s business partner, John H. Prentice. Attracted to Putnam’s intelligence and beauty, the 42 year-old Packer married the 22 year-old Putnam in 1842. The couple went on to have 3 children, William S. Packer II (1845), a daughter named Julia who died in infancy, and Harriet P. Packer (1848). Unfortunately, just two years after the birth of baby Harriet, William S. Packer died on December 15 1850.2

Harriet L. Packer never remarried. Instead, she opened up her large home up to poets, musicians, artists and statesmen, making it a center of social life in Brooklyn society. After the burning of BFA in 1853, Putnam recommitted a portion of her fortune to her deceased husband’s interest in female education by offering the school $65,000 to fund a new building. Other than requesting that the newly built school be named in honor of her late husband, Packer remained neutral on school trustee decisions.

It was only after Harriet L. Packer’s death in 1892 that her children asked that her donation be commemorated. To this end, her children donated a bust of their mother to be displayed in the school’s chapel. Years later, her nephew donated a portrait that continues to hang in the school’s hallway.3

1Robert Furman, Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Suburb (The History Press, Charleston, SC: 2015) 97.
2Majorie L. Nickerson, A Long Way Forward (Brooklyn, NY) 48-49.
3Nickerson, 44-45.

[William S. Packer], 1840

[William S. Packer], 1840Full record

[Portrait of Mrs. Packer in younger years], 1850 ca.

[Portrait of Mrs. Packer in younger years], 1850 ca.Full record

Related documents
  • Memorial essay for Harriett Packer by Truman J. Backus, 1892

  • Letter from Harriet L. Packer to the trustees of the Brooklyn Female Academy, 1853/01/25

  • Resolutions by The Packer Collegiate Institute Board of Trustees and speech regarding the death of Harriet P. Packer, 1910 ca.