ByDiana Bocco/Dec. 26, 2022 10:46 am EST
Education has changed immensely over the past few centuries. Back in Colonial times in the 1700s, education was a very informal affair, with parents doing a fair amount of teaching themselves. Proper schools weren't easy to set up because of geographical constraints, and even when they were up and running, many focused their teaching on religion and basic subjects like reading (per Encyclopedia).
According to Encyclopedia, girls' education lagged behind too, with many being taught how to read but little else beyond things like needlework, music, or drawing. Things started to slowly change as the 18th century came to a close, though formal schooling would not be properly set up in many states until the second half of the 19th century.
After the American Revolution, there was a major push by Congress to establish a public education system. According to a 1787 Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio (via Yale Law School), the education system was to "forever be encouraged," as it was deemed an essential part of "good government and the happiness of mankind."While Thomas Jefferson also pushed for public education, it wasn't until the early 19th century that an official public education system was finally put in place and education became a much more organized affair, according to the Public School Review. Here's what school was like in the 1800s.
Schools in the 1800s required lots of upkeep
According toThe Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia, a typical school could be built of wood, stone, or brick. Some were covered in siding, while others were simpler structures. Some buildings even had a tower with a bell used to call children to class. Floors were usually wood, and students would often be in charge of oiling the floors to keep them in good condition. As students entered the building, a small area was dedicated to being used as a cloakroom, where coats and bags or their metal lunch boxes were kept. The room itself contained little except seats for the pupils, a raised structure where the teacher's desk was located, and a blackboard that covered the entire front wall (and sometimes part of the side walls). There was an outhouse behind the school and drinking water was taken from a well outdoors.
While urban schools were better supported, rural schools often depended on the community they served. Residents would provide firewood for the school's stove, help with supplies, and even build some of the furniture. Children only had basic supplies, including slate boards and chalk, for learning. Teachers themselves were even taken in by different families of their students sometimes, according to the Public School Review.
Subjects in school focused on the basics
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As there was no structured teaching system or curriculum in place and not enough textbooks available, teaching in the 1800s focused on the basics. Most schools made reading, writing (including good penmanship), and math the focus of the school year, according to The Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia. This is still known today as the three "Rs" of basic skills-oriented education: "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic."
Recitation (sometimes called "the fourth R") was a big part of teaching reading, with students having to memorize long passages that they would then repeat in front of the class. School would often start with children taking turns to recite (or sometimes read) from a book. Writing was practiced on slate tablets.
A popular arithmetic textbook was published in 1821, but before then, teachers would often repeat basic math rules that needed to be memorized even if they were meaningless to new students. With the publication of Warren Colburn's First Lessons in Arithmetic in 1821, a new system to teach math was put in place to help younger children understand the concept of numbers. This was done via basic techniques like counting beans or buttons long before students were introduced to abstract things like plus and minus signs (per theUniversity of Georgia).
Days at school were long
School-age children spent a large part of their day at school, often starting at 8 or 9 a.m. and not going home until 3 or 4 p.m. However, their days usually started much earlier than that. Without public transportation in place (or for those too young to ride a pony), some children had to walk up to three miles to cover the distance between home and school (via The Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia).Older students sometimes arrived even earlier to help teachers set up the classroom and get the wood stove going. Students would wait to enter the classroom until everybody had arrived or it was time to start. At that point, they would separate into two groups, with girls entering first.
The official beginning of the school day included formally saying good morning to the teacher and then reciting both the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. In some schools, this was even followed by reading from the Bible. Students had lunch and recreational breaks throughout the day, and some would stay after school — either as punishment for misbehaving during the day or to help clean up the room and wash the floors.
The school year was either a lot shorter or longer than today
While today's school year may seem long, students only attend school for around 180 days because of breaks and official bank holidays throughout the year. This means students spend much of winter in school but have a big part of summer free, as reported via the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education.
Back in the early and mid-1800s, the school year was significantly shorter in rural areas: an average of about 132 days or around 4 1/2 months. Even then, rural students often missed school, and the attendance rate was barely 59%, which meant students in the 1870s might only be in school about 78 days a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Manyof the missing school days were connected to farm work, as children needed to take time off to help during the harvest season. Plus, poor healthcare and hygiene at the time meant children got sick often and had to stay home. Things started to change when states like Massachusetts passed compulsory school attendance laws in 1852. But farm kids were still often absent in spring and fall.
Punishment was hands-on
With an overcrowded classroom filled with children of all ages, teachers often resorted to physical punishment to stay in control in the 1800s. This often included spankings with sticks and whipping students with long rulers. Students were also forced to write sentences hundreds of times, memorize stories and recite them error-free, clean floors, and stand for long periods of time with their noses touching the blackboard, according to The Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia.
The dunce cap was also used in U.S. schools in the 1800s as a punishment tool. Although Merriam-Webster describes dunce caps as "a conical cap formerly used as a punishment for slow learners at school," it seems teachers were more likely to use it as a punishment for poor behavior. Disruptive and unruly children would be told to wear the cone-shaped hat and sometimes would need to stand in a corner for a period of time (per Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia).
While rural schools continued using corporal punishment for many years, cities were starting to move away from it as early as the 1820s, according to theJournal of the Early Republic. At the time, schools were still regularly using rods, birch branches, and even whipping as a way to exert control over their classes. American educational reformer Horace Mann was instrumental in fighting against corporal punishment in schools in the 19th century, arguing that this repressed rather than reformed students.
Education for boys and girls wasn't the same
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Up until the late 18th century, girls were often educated at home. While boys were learning additional academic subjects like math and logic in private schools, girls' education focused on things like sewing, fine penmanship, needlework, and art — all things that would make them better wives, mothers, and women in society (via Florence Griswold Museum). According to "Women's Education in the United States, 1780-1840," (viaHistory of Education Quarterly), women tended to receive an education based on "ornamental courses" while men received "useful courses.
Things improved significantly for girls in the 19th century, with many towns opening girls-only schools led by better-educated female teachers eager to pass on their knowledge. As public schools became more commonplace, so did the enrollment of girls in those schools. By the second half of the 19th century, theCenter for Education Statistics points out that enrollment rates in school were roughly even between boys and girls.
Schools for Black students were scarce
Education for African Americans in the 1800s was, at best, really complicated. Before the Civil War, Black people in southern states weren't allowed to attend school and most were not even able to read or write unless they were self-taught (viaCenter for Education Statistics).Even in northern states, though, where they were technically allowed to receive an education, access to it was very limited before the 1860s. After the Civil War ended in 1865, things improved quickly. By 1870, 10% of Blacks were enrolled in school, and by 1880, 34% were.
Much of the change was due to the work of the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (or Freedman's Bureau), which helped former slaves transition into society after 1865. This included everything from relief work to medical aid and helping settle disputes. But their most important work was done in the field of education. In fact, the Bureau oversaw the opening of over 1,000 schools for Black students.
In the south, where resistance to accepting former slaves integrating into society was stronger, the Bureau was even more active. Their Freedman's Union Industrial School operated in Virginia was key to helping Black students learn the basics of reading and mathematics, but also a trade that would help them find a job. By the end of 1865, about eight months after the war ended, more than 90,000 former slaves were attending schools set up by the Bureau (per Digital History).
Native Americans were abused in boarding schools
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As it had since its founding, the U.S. government spent much of the 1800s waging war against Native Americans. By the 1860s, when the Union Army was fighting for the end of slavery, Natives were being imprisoned, killed, and persecuted around the country (via Library of Congress).
But there was also another war taking place on the education front, supported by something called The 1819 Civilization Fund Act, the main focus of which was to educate the Indigenous population to help "kill the Indian in him, and save the man," according to The Indigenous Foundation. Children were separated from their families and taken to 357 Native American boarding schools that opened up across the country in 1860.
One goal of these schools was to eliminate Indigenous history and identity by giving children Anglo-American names and forcing them to convert to Christianity. The other was educating them not only in basic subjects like reading, writing, history, and math but also teaching them a trade, like blacksmithing for boys and cooking for girls. While these seem useful enough, children were then often placed in "programs" where they would be exploited as free or cheap labor using those skills.
According to The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, boarding schools (many of which were run by the church) were involved in sexual and extreme physical abuse towards these children. Many disappeared after being in boarding school and were never returned to their homeland.
Early schools used a monitorial system
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Also known as the Lancasterian system, the monitorial system was meant to take some of the pressure off teachers. With teachers often taking on quite large classes to make up for the lack of available educators, older children were assigned some of the classroom duties (per History).Under this system, teachers would only teach new concepts to older students or those who were performing better academically (regardless of their age).
These students would then in turn teach the younger ones, but also sometimes take attendance, test students to see if they could be promoted to a different class, or even take care of preparing materials for the classroom. This freed up time and resources and allowed teachers to focus on organizing and overseeing the classroom instead of teaching the same things over and over.
Although unusual, the system did have some benefits. For example, it allowed schools to operate even if there was an issue finding enough teachers, and it also eliminated waiting time. If a single teacher had to teach different subjects at different levels to a big class, many students would have to wait their turn, wasting precious time. With older children involved in the teaching process, everybody was always actively involved in the learning process (via Britannica).
Horace Mann changed the school system
Enter Horace Mann, who took over as secretary of education of Massachusetts in 1837. Mann used what he had learned observing the European school system to transform the one in the U.S., including requiring examinations for teachers to ensure their competency. By the midpoint of the century, Mann's methods had begun to spread across the country.
Mann, often called "the founder of the U.S. public school system,"advocated for state-supported schools, a unified curriculum, properly set up school buildings, and free public education for all. Another major change from the previous century was the introduction of "normal schools" — basically, a two-year college-level education to prepare teachers to lead a classroom. Before these schools were put in place, teachers were adults (mostly women) willing to teach but without any formal education or the tools needed to properly instruct children. The first private normal school opened in 1823, but by 1839, public normal schools were starting to open as well (per Buffalo State University).
The second half of the 19th century brought along many changes
There were significant educational changes in the second half of the 19th century, which not only improved education in general but also opened the door to many new things.
A big one was the introduction of kindergartens in 1856, following the example of Germany. Until then, children started school straight into first grade and immediately focused on learning the same subjects as older students. Kindergarten was a great addition that allowed more creative activities to stimulate the mind (per Library of Congress). Although the first kindergartens were private, free public ones were available in1873. Theywere a major success in helping children improve manners and speech and learn self-control and social skills (per VCU Libraries' Social Welfare History Project).
In the 1890s, another major change took place in schools with the introduction of physical education. As noted bythe Library of Congress, this was a major step forward not only because it helped recognize the importance of team sports and exercise, but also because it was available for both boys and girls (and the latter had been ignored for certain school activities throughout the century).
What was school like in the 1800s in America? ›
One-room schoolhouses were the norm.
Young kids, nicknamed Abecedarians, sat in the front and older students in the back. They learned reading, writing, math, geography, and history. Teachers would call a group of students to the front of the classroom for their lesson, while other grades worked at their seats.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one room schoolhouses were the norm in rural areas. A single teacher taught grades one through eight together. The youngest students—called Abecedarians, because they would learn their ABCs—sat in the front, while the oldest sat in the back.How did students get to school in the 1800s? ›
Back in the 1800s, there was no public transportation provided for students so many actually walked through high snow and other bad weather, sometimes for a few miles, to get to school during and even after pioneer times.Was school a thing in the 1800s? ›
As you can tell from the title, back in the 1800's there weren't elementary, middle, or high schools. There were just one room schoolhouses. You may think the different age groups just went to school at different times, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case.How long did kids go to school in the 1800s? ›
In the late 1800s, kids in rural areas were in school for only five, because parents needed children to help with harvest and planting seasons. The school year got longer in the early 1900s as educating children became required by law and more public schools were built.What is a normal school in the 1800's? ›
The Normal School
This was a laboratory school where children on both the primary or secondary levels were taught, and where their teachers, and the instructors of those teachers, learned together in the same building.
A girl's education often included basic reading,and writing as well feminine activities such as needlework and dancing. Girls might also read Shakespearean plays and poetry. During earlier times, even these most basic academic skills were not commonly taught to upper-classes girls.Did girls go to school 1800s? ›
It wasn't until the Common School Movement of the 1840s and 1850s that girls could take their education further, being permitted to attend town schools, though usually at a time when boys were not in attendance.Did all kids go to school in the 1800s? ›
There was no national system of education before the 19th century, and only a small section of the child population received any schooling. Opportunities for a formal education were restricted mainly to town grammar schools, charity schools and 'dame' schools.What age did children leave school in 1880? ›
Compulsory education was initially introduced for 5- to 10-year-olds in 1880. The leaving age was increased to 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899, 14 in 1918, 15 in 1947 and 16 in 1972. In England, this was increased to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015 though that does not apply in Wales.
Did poor children go to school in the 1800s? ›
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the only schools available for poor children were charity and church schools or 'dame' schools set up by unqualified teachers in their own homes. Ragged schools were introduced in the 1840s.What did kids do in the 1800s? ›
Guessing games, word games, and board games were also played in the parlor. Some table games required a steady hand or quick wit to win. In other games, victory depended on the luck of the draw. Dominoes - Playing dominoes was a favorite pastime the late 1800s.What were the punishments for school in the 1800s? ›
19th Century Discipline:
Corporal punishment was the most common form of discipline in schools. Teachers would use switches, birch, rulers, etc. for discipline and academic issues. Teachers were able to hit students when they were not paying attention in class, had discipline problems, and for academic issues.
Many lived a hand-to-mouth existence, working long hours in often harsh conditions. There was no electricity, running water or central heating. With no electric lighting (or gas) the rhythm of life revolved around the hours of daylight, and therefore would have varied with the seasons.What was school like in the 1860s? ›
Communities throughout the nation, local church congregations and civic-minded citizens ran schools primarily. Teachers were usually left to their own judgement in planning curriculum and the daily teaching was usually left to the teacher rather than the local school board.When did children leave school at 14? ›
The 1918 Fisher Act after the First World War brought in a standard leaving age for all of 14, against opposition from some employers and many parents.Did kids go to school in the 1860s? ›
School was an important topic in the lives of most children. Few states provided universal public education, but in communities throughout the nation, local church congregations and civic-minded citizens started schools.What was school like 100 years ago for kids? ›
One hundred years ago, many kids had jobs, whether on family farms or at mills or factories—which meant that regular 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school hours wouldn't work. Some children attended elementary and high school at night [PDF], and in some cities, it was mandatory to provide night school for children.Did kids go to school in the 1700s? ›
Students did not have to attend school for all six months, but the schools had to be there in case they wanted to attend. The churches ran the schools, and religion was an important part of education. The West Division had several schoolhouses in the 1770s, so most students walked less than a mile or two to school.When were female teachers allowed to marry? ›
Until the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed in 1919, no married women were allowed to work as teachers.
Were normal schools created in the US in the 1800s? ›
Normal schools were established chiefly to train elementary-school teachers for common schools (known as public schools in the United States). The first public normal school in the United States was founded in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839.Why did people did not send girls to school? ›
(i) They thought that education would pollute the minds of girls. (ii) They feared that schools would take girls away from home, prevent them from doing their domestic duties. (iii) They believed that girls should stay away from public places.Why were girls not allowed to go to school? ›
The reasons are many. Barriers to girls' education – like poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence – vary among countries and communities. Poor families often favour boys when investing in education. In some places, schools do not meet the safety, hygiene or sanitation needs of girls.What year were girls allowed to go to school? ›
1800–1849. United States: Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts, was the first higher educational institution to admit women in Massachusetts. It was founded as a co-educational institution, but became exclusively for women in 1837.Who was first girl in school? ›
On 1 st January 1848 , Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule began India's first girls' school at Bhide Wada in Pune. Savitribai Phule became the first women teacher of India in 1848 and opened a girls' school with her husband Jyotiba Phule.When did boys and girls go to school together? ›
The first coeducational high school opened in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1840. Up until the Civil War, the spread of coeducational high schools was slow. At the end of the nineteenth century, girls had the opportunity to attend public elementary schools, most of which were coeducational.What did girls learn in the 1800? ›
Wealthy parents sent their children to fee-paying schools or employed governess, but gender still affected those of high class: boys' schooling was considered more important, and they were taught academic and functional skills while girls were taught sewing, needlework, drawing, and music.What is a typical school day in America? ›
In the U.S., a typical day of high school starts at about 7:30 a.m. and ends around 3:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. Extracurricular activities are typically scheduled in the afternoons and early evenings during the school week; however, some extracurricular activities may also be scheduled on weekends.What were children's lives like in the 1800s? ›
Life in the 1800s
Before the Victorian era, children as young as 6 or 8 years old might work in a mill or factory, they might run errands and make deliveries for a store keeper, they may be apprenticed to a skilled craftsman or woman, or they could be hired out as a servant.
1899 – The compulsory school leaving age was raised to 12. 1918 – The mandatory age for children to be in full-time education was raised to14. 1944 – The compulsory school leaving age was raised again, to 15. 1972 – 1972's Education Act raised the school leaving age to 16.
What age can you legally leave school? ›
School leaving age
Children can leave school on the last Friday in June of the school year in which they reach 16 years of age. They must however do one of the following until they are 18: stay in full-time education, e.g. at a college. start an apprenticeship or traineeship.
The Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 raised the age to the current minimum of 16 years, and prohibits under-18s from leaving school until they have completed three years of secondary education (i.e. up to Junior Certificate).How many days were in a school year during the early 1800s? ›
According to Silva, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, large cities commonly had long school years, ranging from 251 to 260 days (2007).What were Victorian girls taught? ›
Typical lessons at school included the three Rs - Reading, WRiting and Dictation, and ARithmetic. In addition to the three Rs which were taught most of the day, once a week the children learned geography, history and singing. The girls learned how to sew.What was it like to be a kid in the late 1800s? ›
Children of the time were either forced to abandon education for their family contributions, or had to balance school with a full day's work ("Education"). Even when they were not in school or doing manual labor, their day-to-day lives were uncomfortable and harsh (Kids).What was education like in the 1890s? ›
Many late nineteenth-century schools were ungraded, and students were seated according to their general level of ability. Usually, this meant that the younger students were in front and older ones in the back. Students were promoted to the next level when the teacher believed they were ready.What people did for fun in the 1800s? ›
What sort of things might you do to have fun and be entertained? Theatre Halls were numerous and performances were regularly given by theatre troupes, ventriloquists, hypnotists, poets, comedians, choirs and orchestras. Circuses came to town and set up in parks and public places.What jobs did child slaves do? ›
Slave children, under their parents and masters, lived in fear of punishment and isolation. Though circumstances widely varied, they often worked in fields with adults, tended animals, cleaned and served in their owners' houses, and took care of younger children while their parents were working.How much did children get paid in the 1800s? ›
Most children working here were boys earning $0.50-$0.60 a day. Underground, a boy might work 14 hours a day. Working in a cannery was a seasonal job, very common for six and seven year old boys and girls. An ordinary day began at 3 a.m. At the height of the season, children often worked eighteen hours a day.Was homework a punishment for kids? ›
In 1905, an Italian teacher named Roberto Nevilis invented the concept of “homework.” Originally, its purpose was to be used as a punishment for students who were lazy in class or for those who were disobedient or rude to their teacher.
How were children punished in the past? ›
Harsh punishments for minor infractions were common. Beatings and other forms of corporal punishment occurred regularly; one legislator even suggested capital punishment for children's misbehavior.When were teachers banned from hitting students? ›
Although banned in 1947, corporal punishment is still commonly found in schools in the 2010s and particularly widespread in school sports clubs.What was a typical meal in the 1800's? ›
The main meal in the 1800s, however, was not the large evening meal that is familiar to us today. Rather, it was a meal called dinner, enjoyed in the early afternoon. Supper was a smaller meal eaten in the evening. A big difference between the way people eat today compared with long ago is the work and time needed.What time was dinner in the 1800s? ›
In the early 1800s, upper-class Bostonians were still eating breakfast at nine a.m., dinner at two p.m., and supper at eight, earlier hours than their counterparts in London. Their two o'clock dinner was the time for entertaining guests, and showing off the silverware and fancy foods.How many hours a day did people work in 1800? ›
In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. Since then the workweek's length has decreased considerably.What was school life like in the 1800s? ›
One-room schoolhouses were the norm.
They learned reading, writing, math, geography, and history. Teachers would call a group of students to the front of the classroom for their lesson, while other grades worked at their seats. Sometimes older kids helped teach the younger pupils.
There were just one room schoolhouses. You may think the different age groups just went to school at different times, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case. All of the children, no matter what age, race, or gender, went to the same schoolhouse at the same time.Did girls go to school in the 1890s? ›
High school enrollment trebled in the 1890s, with girls continuing to represent the lion's share. The expansion of both secondary and tertiary public education that began in 1867 and lasted until the early 20th century created greater opportunities for women.What did kids do in the late 1800s? ›
Guessing games, word games, and board games were also played in the parlor. Some table games required a steady hand or quick wit to win. In other games, victory depended on the luck of the draw. Dominoes - Playing dominoes was a favorite pastime the late 1800s.Did girls get education in the 1800s? ›
In the early part of the nineteenth century, very few girls received an education and those who had the option attended dame schools, which started in the eighteenth century and focused on basic literacy.
What was life like for children in the 1800s? ›
Children were expected to take on chores around the house as soon as they could help. Small children, even as young as 4 or 5 years old, had chores such as keeping the fire going, fetching water, and caring for livestock. Even families who lived in towns often owned chickens or horses.