School’s in Session (Part 1)

This week will be dedicated to a short miniseries on schooling and one room schoolhouses in 1800s New England.  Because there is so much to share I have divided this article into three portions to help limit the information overload!  Without further ado I present to you:

School’s in Session!

One Room Schoolhouse in Massachusetts

Schooling in New England has a rich history.  The Colony of Massachusetts established its first school in 1647.  Education in the 1600s consisted mainly of reading, for the Puritans believed that every child should be able to read the Bible.  Most schools started as dame schools—an informal gathering of children taught by women, often located in the home of the teacher, where students were taught the basics of reading and writing.  In the 1700s it became law that every town in Massachusetts had to provide public education where children could learn the “three R’s”—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  Massachusetts towns were required to tax themselves in order to provide these tuition-free schools.  By 1800 most towns were divided into several districts with a neighborhood school in each.  These new schools, known as district schools, replaced the dame schools.  District schools were held in school buildings built and owned by the town and were run by teachers hired by the town selectmen.  By the early 19th century, the district school would prevail over the dame school and eventually replace it completely.

Classroom desks in the early 1800s

District schools varied in architectural style from town to town.  They were built by local craftsmen who kept very much to the style of their region.  Despite this vernacular architecture, most schools shared many similarities.  They were typically located on a barren piece of land that could be used for little else.  The schools were always one room, with the exception of a cloakroom, and typically ranged from 20 to 26 feet square.  Every school had a simple front entry.  Some schools also had two back door entrances—one for boys the other for girls—that opened into a small cloakroom that connected to the main room.  Students were also kept separate in the classroom, boys on one side, girls on the other.  Windows typically lined either side of the room.  Many schoolhouses originally had the window sills placed so high that children wouldn’t be able to see out of them.  It was believed that lower windows would distract the children and promote daydreaming, keeping the pupils from doing their work.  This mentality eventually changed, and newer schoolhouses featured lowered windows.  All light was provided by the windows, as there was no electricity or even candlelight in these schoolhouses.

Iron Box Stove (and me playing the schoolmarm)

A single wood stove heated the entire classroom in the winter.  Up until 1820 the Franklin stove was used—a design very much like a typical fireplace today.  In 1820, this was replaced by the Iron Box Stove in schools.  This stove was, as the name suggests, a box that wood was fed into.  A pipe extended from the top and then ran parallel to the ceiling, distributing heat throughout the room.  The teacher’s desk sat at the front of the classroom with a blackboard behind it, and two to four rows of benches and desks filled the rest of the space.  The youngest children, typically around the age of six, sat in the smallest desks at the front of the room, and the oldest children (anywhere from age sixteen to eighteen) occupied larger desks in the back rows.  The privy, or necessary, (commonly known as the outhouse today) would be located outside and far enough away from the school that no odors would filter in.

While New Englanders were proud that they required an education for all their children of all classes, they were very indifferent toward the quality of the education those children received.  In the early 1800s there was no standard for the quality of education and qualification requirements for teachers were nonexistent.  Almost anyone could teach if they met certain minimal standards. First, women had to be single, as married women were kept busy from dawn to dusk keeping house and raising a family, a full time job that left them no time to teach.  And second, teachers should be in their late teens or early twenties.  The town selectman or school committee was in charge of hiring the schoolmarm.  If she wasn’t from town, she would be given room and board with one of the townsfolk.  The average teacher’s salary in the early 1800s ranged from $4 to $10 per month for women and $10 to $12 for men–not a great sum by any means.

One instructor taught all the students.  This could involve up to eight grade levels at a time.  The school typically ran for two terms during the year: the summer term when women taught and the winter term, which was traditionally taught by men, because the older boys typically attended school in the winter when they weren’t needed in the fields and it was believed men could discipline the boys better.  By the 1830s however, school committees were coming to see women as more effective teachers and less expensive than men, and women were increasingly being hired for both terms.  The schoolmarm or schoolmaster had specific duties besides teaching the students to read and write.  Schoolteachers were expected to keep strict discipline in the classroom and could punish students however they saw fit.  Families would supply firewood, and each morning one child was responsible for starting the fire before the others arrived.  At the end of the day the schoolteacher was responsible for sweeping floors and cleaning the blackboards.

One Room Schoolhouse from 1790s

Horace Mann, an advocate of education reform, would be the first to tackle the issue of a “quality education.”  Mann not only sought a higher standard for teachers (that they should be well-trained), but also advocated the disuse of corporal punishment in school discipline.  Mann supported the ideas that students be required to attend school until the age of sixteen, that schools incorporate a wider curriculum and be better equipped and that teachers receive a higher salary–all concepts that he felt would better education in Massachusetts.  His work would eventually change people’s attitudes towards education and lead to a reform in the school system.

Continue to Part 2

(click on pictures to enlarge)


6 Responses to School’s in Session (Part 1)

  1. […] Stay tune for tomorrow’s conclusion.  If you missed yesterday’s post check it out here: Part 1 […]

  2. Kate says:

    Very cool. We have a one room schoolhouse not a mile down the road from me. We used to do a lot of things there with the girlscouts, and the historical society still uses it for events (I received a scholarship for college there). Ours looks very similar to the one you show here, on the inside. Our little red school house (as we call it) is made of wood, not brick. ^_^

  3. Jennifer says:

    Yeah, more often than not I think the schools were made of wood – Stow had 5 schoolhouses at once and I think this one was the only brick one. Two are no longer standing. One is now in the neighboring town (as town lines were redrawn when Maynard came to be) and the other is privately owned. Our historical society does summer events there and I play the schoolmarm 😀 It’s fun.

  4. QNPoohBear says:

    In elementary school we visited a one room schoolhouse nearby and I thought it was the coolest thing ever and loved being Laura Ingalls for the day!

  5. Mike says:

    I visited a one-room schoolhouse in a West Virginia coal-mining town. My favorite bit of trivia from that visit was that the teacher’s contract allowed him “one evening per week for courting; two evenings, if church was attended on Sunday morning.”

  6. Jennifer says:

    That’s a great fact 😀 Aren’t the little things like that the most interesting things!

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