School’s in Session (Part 2)

Today I’ll continue with descriptions of a typical school day and the text books used by students in the 1800s.

School’s in Session (Part 2)

Example from McGuffey's First Reader - children would learn the alphabet and to spell from examples such as this one.

A typical school day in the 1800’s wasn’t that much different from today.  Students had their lessons, recess and lunch break just like children today.  However, getting to school wasn’t as simple.  Children had to walk to and from school, no matter what the weather was like.  Most students had to walk at least a mile sometimes up to five miles to reach the school.  The teacher ringing her bell signified the beginning of the day.  Students “made their manners,” bowing or curtsying to the teacher, and took their seats.  The opening exercises began with the Lord’s Prayer, Bible reading and roll call, and the pupils would then begin working on their reading and writing lessons.  At midmorning they received a short recess, which was followed by arithmetic and lunch.  Students brought their lunches, usually homemade bread with jam, to school in a basket or tin pail.  The afternoon consisted of lessons in history and geography.  At around 4pm the next day’s duties (no homework, but jobs such as starting the fire) were handed out, and the children were dismissed.

The three most important subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic.  Writing and ciphering were considered especially important, since just about every profession—farmer, storekeeper, craftsperson, miller—needed these skills for bookkeeping and running their business.  Penmanship was also a valuable skill and much time was spent perfecting it.  Up until the early 1830s, students did a lot of learning by “rote,” or memorizing, and then reciting to the teacher.  By the late 1830’s, educational reformists were beginning to stress the importance of comprehension over memorization, and memorization eventually came to play a much smaller role.

Cover page from Colburn's Arithmetic textbook.

In the 1800s classroom you wouldn’t find any pens, pencils, crayons or lined paper.  A student’s only writing utensil was a quill pen— a sharpened goose feather—that he dipped in ink to write with.  Students practiced their penmanship in copybooks—unlined paper notebooks.  They used rulers to draw straight lines to aid them when writing.  A quill pen left a lot of wet ink on the page, and to help prevent smudging students covered the paper with blotting paper to absorb the excess ink.  If a student couldn’t afford a copybook, he used a slate to practice on.

In the early 18th century, students studied their lessons from the New England Primer and the Bible.  The primer contained the alphabet, numbers, spelling words and poems that the student would learn through memorization.  In 1836 William Holmes McGuffey published the McGuffey Readers, a series of six readers that became progressively more challenging with each volume.  The first reader started by presenting the letters of the alphabet.  The children were then taught to form and pronounce words and eventually read passages of text.  Through stories such as “The Greedy Girl“; “The Kind Little Girl“; “The Honest Boy and the Thief“; “The Lord’s Prayer“; “The Effects of Rashness“; “On Speaking the Truth“; and “Consequences of Bad Spelling” the readers extolled, explained and illustrated such virtues as honesty, charily, thrift, hard work, courage, patriotism, reverence for God and respect for parents. The McGuffey Readers would remain one of the most popular reading and writing textbooks throughout the 19th century and even into the early 20th century.

While the McGuffey Readers were the main textbooks, other books were used for history, geography, science and math.  For example “Warren Colburn’s Arithmetic” was a popular math book.  Like the reader, it started off simple:

“James has two apples, and William has three; if James gives his apples to William, how many will William have?” excerpt from Colburn’s Arithmetic 1822

And grew progressively harder:

“A boy went to the confectioner’s and bought three cakes of gingerbread, for which he gave a cent apiece; two buns, for which he gave three cents apiece; one custard for four cents, and one orange for six cents; how many cents did he spend for the whole?” excerpt from Colburn’s Arithmetic 1822

Math problems, even simple addition and subtraction, were typically expressed as word problems.   Nineteenth century curriculum wasn’t easy.  For example “Mitchell’s Ancient Geography” covered a wide range of topics listing facts in bulleted format.  The student had to read and memorize these facts, and then be able to answer a series of questions about them at the end of each chapter.  They were given very few diagrams, maps or pictures to aid in their comprehension.  The textbook also, unlike today’s curriculum, had a portion dedicated to “Sacred Geography,” the study of the geography of the Bible.

Students were required to study the Geography of the Bible as well as the "Classical Geography."

History of the United States” by Samuel Eliot was a five hundred and forty page book on the history of the United States from 1492 to 1872.  Some of the topics it covered were the English, Dutch, and Swedish Settlements, Indian Races, and the Indian and Dutch Wars.  Students worked hard to learn everything in these textbooks, for at the end of the year if they were unable to pass their exams they would be required to study it all again next year.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s conclusion.  If you missed yesterday’s post check it out here: Part 1

Click on pictures to enlarge.


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3 Responses to School’s in Session (Part 2)

  1. QNPoohBear says:

    Very interesting. Any American Girl doll fans out there? I love the little school books! They’re on my top favorite list of accessories.

  2. […] you missed the past two posts check it out here: Part 1 and Part 2 — Come back tomorrow and participate in an old schoolhouse […]

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