School Days of the 1800s

19th century schoolhouseAutumn is one of my favorite seasons—it easily makes it into the top four! I love the cooler temperatures, the changing leaves, and pumpkin EVERYTHING. I also love seeing the big yellow school buses driving down the road with seats full of young hostages, er, I mean students. It’s the time of the year when my great-grandfather’s voice comes back to me. I can hear him telling about walking five miles in a snowstorm to get to school, with cardboard lining his shoes to cover the holes. And I want to announce to those grim faces on the passing school bus that they don’t know how great they have it! So, in this edition of the Campfire Chronicle, I want to pay tribute to those rugged schoolchildren of the 1800s!

A Lot of Ground to Cover

19th century schoolhouseIn the 1800s, schools were set up to serve students within a five-mile radius. Why five miles? Because, true to Great-Grandpappy’s stories, five miles was considered to be walking distance. Here’ a math problem for you: If an average walking speed is 3 mph, how long did it take Johnny and Mary to walk 5 miles? The answer is: Too long!

Keep in mind that the children weren’t walking on paved roads. They were cutting across fields and walking on wagon trails. A fortunate child might have had the use of a horse, but, by and large, children hoofed it on their own two feet! Also, remember that school wasn’t cancelled for something as basic as pouring rain or a little snowstorm and that most children had already done morning chores before setting off for school.

Going Old School

19th century schoolhouse - interiorOf course we’re all familiar with the concept of a one-room schoolhouse. And, thanks to “Little House on the Prairie,” we’re all familiar with the fact that a one-room schoolhouse on Monday-Friday might well have been a church on Sundays. It’s sort of like the “cafegymatoriums” of today! One space could serve multiple purposes.

How large was that one room that held every young ‘un in a community? Most of them were about 20 feet by 30 feet. For most communities, that meant kindergarten through 8th grade, though poorer areas might only provide schooling through the third of fourth grade. The kindergarteners were called Abecedarians. That’s pronounced, “ay-bee-see-dair-ee-uns,” and it means exactly what you think it means—that they were there to learn their ABCs.

19th century schoolhouse - interior 2Several things were fairly consistent among one-room schoolhouses. There was always a large, slate blackboard at the front of the room. There was always a stove in the center of the room. And, the schoolhouses were always hot when the weather was hot and cold when the weather was cold!

Some schools had separate entrances for boys and girls. Of course, boys and girl sat on separate sides of the schoolroom, too. They weren’t running a bunch of courting schools! And, if it seems odd that schools would have male and female entrances, it might interest you to know that many churches of the day expected men and women to sit on separate sides as well.

19th century chalkboardParents didn’t have to worry about purchasing long lists of school supplies. There weren’t different school supplies to buy according to grade. No one was expected to find gluten free paint for art projects. The list was simple: 1) a slate, and 2) chalk. That’s it! And guess what. Unlike today’s backpacks, it didn’t matter if everyone had seen you use the same slate the previous year.

How did one teacher handle teaching that many grades? There’s a reason the schools are sometimes referred to as “babble schools!” There was a whole lot of activity in the classroom. The older students were expected to help the younger students. They might have been working on seatwork, but each grade sat through all of the daily lessons. Each grade went to front of the room for recitations on a daily basis. Rather than being distracting, it seems that the younger students were able to pick up a lot of information that would not have normally been covered in their grade.

The Three R’s and the Rest of the School Day

19th century teacher and studentJust because learning took place in close quarters, don’t think for one minute that students weren’t expected to excel. Schools taught reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as, history, spelling, grammar, geography, music and rhetoric.

The school day lasted from 9:00am and ended at 2:00 or 4:00pm, with one hour for lunch. Lunch did not include Lunchables or Bento boxes filled with food shaped like Hello Kitty! Students brought metal pails (normally they used old lard pails) filled with biscuits or cornbread and whatever else the family happened to have on hand. There were no cartons of chocolate milk or juice boxes, either. Every student drank water from the same metal dipper. Can you spell tuberculosis, boys and girls?

19th century studentsSchool terms were shorter. Most schools had a summer term and a winter term, each lasting for about 10 weeks. During the spring and fall, children were expected to help with the farm work.

School Masters and Schoolmarms

19th century schoolhouseWhat did it take to become a teacher? Teachers had to pass qualifying examinations that allowed them to receive a first or second grade certificate. A second grade certificate entitled a teacher to teach primary grades. A first grade certificate meant that a teacher had scored at least 70% on their examinations in the following courses:

• Mental Arithmetic
• Written Arithmetic
• Reading
• Penmanship
• U.S. History
• Civil Government
• Geography
• English Grammar
• English Composition
• Drawing Blackboard
• Bookkeeping
• Physiology
• Orthography
• Theory and Art of Teaching

That was quite a feat considering most teachers had never had any formal training!

19th century schoolhouseUp until the Civil War, most teachers were men . . . you can probably guess why that changed. Yes, the Civil War brought us the advancement of the schoolmarm. Teachers were not allowed to marry, which might explain why some schoolmarms were as young as fifteen! Teachers sometimes boarded out with the families of students. That was considered a perk! An experienced, well-paid teacher might have pulled in $25 per month that school was in session. An inexperienced teacher in a poor community sometimes made as little as $4 per month.


19th century testWhat did it take to successfully complete the eighth grade? An 1895 8th Grade Final Exam for Salina, Kansas has been circulating the internet for more than a decade. The five-hour exam allowed 1 hour for Grammar, 1.25 hours for Arithmetic, 45 minutes for U.S. History, 1 hour for Orthography, and one hour for Geography. The test is not for the faint of heart! Seriously, I took a look at those questions and was left wondering how I manage to dress myself in the morning! I’ll give you a little sampling. The fourth question on the Arithmetic portion is: “District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?” I’m still trying to figure out what the heck that means!

19th century studentOf course, students today have skills students in the 1800s couldn’t imagine. They can use all of the newfangled technological gadgets the world can throw at them. But, as I watch the yellow school buses drive by, I can’t help but wonder how those students would like to be transported to the 1800s. They could start by walking five miles in a snowstorm with cardboard in their shoes!

Here’s a short history of one room schoolhouses in America that I think you will enjoy!

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

2 Replies to “School Days of the 1800s”

  1. Wonderful story! My father used to tell me the stories of how he and his siblings traveled to and from school. There were 12 children in the family and of these, only two boys. His father made a small cart for the girls to ride in, pulled by a very gentle horse, which stayed at the school in a corral until the ride home. The girls rode in the cart and the two boys walked, leading the horse. The boys had to walk so they could head off the rattlesnakes that were abundant. This kept the horse safe from bites and also kept it from being frightened and running away. I always hated riding the bus to school but these stories made it a little easier!

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