Westtown was founded under the principles proposed by Owen Biddle for a Quaker boarding school similar to the Ackworth school that had recently been established in Yorkshire, Great Britain. In Biddle's pamphlet (image to the left), he claims that a school should exist that provides instruction by Friends and stresses Quaker ideals. Biddle emphasizes the need to separate the students from the outside world in order to protect them from corruption and immorality (sometimes called "guarded education"). Based on the operation of Ackworth's school in Yorkshire, Biddle believed that simplicity and accordance with Quaker principles were the key to the success of a Friends' boarding school.
Westtown began offering classes in 1799 and was from its beginnings coeducational, though certain classes remained separate depending on sex, such as sewing or surveying ("History"). When Vail arrived, the school still maintained its simple roots, unphased by their lack of advanced technology or general progress (A History of Haverford College 189-190).
One of the suggestions laid out by Biddle in his pamphlet is the matter of dress. He says, "With respect to the dress of the children at that school, it is remarked, 'The children at Ackworth are to wear the same kind of garments; regard being had to the dress of the different sexes... The children there ought to value themselves on no other superiority than that of behaving themselves better than others, both in respect to learning and conduct...'" (22-23). In order to maintain an environment of equality among both the students and the teachers, Westtown required all members of the community to wear simple clothing as a point of commonality.
Wearing plain dress was still a requirement at the time of Vail's teaching career, and is mentioned in his autobiographical notebook. After taking the job at Westtown, he was asked by Thomas Kite to leave his "Babylonish" attire at home. Though Vail notes that the clothes he wore to his interview were indeed his "usual dress at the time," and included a popular "double breasted frock coat with a high rolling collar," the frivolity of this sort of dress stood against the suggestions outlined by Biddle and thus some of the fundamental principles of the Westtown School.
Westtown published a fairly frequent newspaper which included correspondence with the editor and articles about the school. Despite Vail having moved to Santa Barbara, he wrote a letter regarding the acquisition of several mineral samples from Nova Scotia which was included in an 1896 issue of The Westonian. He also make mention of his enjoyment of bird-watching, and friendships with certain members of the Arcadia College community. This vacation to Nova Scotia took place during a leave of absence from Westtown due to poor health in 1843.
Haverford College Alumni Association. A History of Haverford College for the First Sixty Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1892.
"History." Westtown School. Westtown School, n.d. Web. 22 Jul 2014.