Raising a child was anything but “normalized” in the American colonial era, which lasted for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. The modern institution of the public school—free, tax-funded education for all children—did not gain a foothold in America until the mid-19th century.
For children living in the 13 colonies, the availability and quality of schools varied greatly from region to region, so that even young George Washington was taught by a schoolmaster who, according to one of the early biographers of the founding father, “knew as little as Balaam’s ass.”
For the Puritans, reading was a religious duty
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The Protestant Reformation was founded on the belief that the faithful could commune directly with God by reading the Bible. This is why the English Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s placed a high priority on education.
“Literacy took on a religious element,” says Edward Janak, an educational historian and professor at the University of Toledo. “If you look at the colonies of New England, the construction of schools surpassed all other types of buildings. This tells you what values they placed on reading.
Massachusetts passed the first laws governing education in America. The “Massachusetts Compulsory Attendance Law”, passed in 1642, did not require children to attend school, but stipulated that all heads of families in Massachusetts were responsible for the “education” of all children living under their roof (including the children of servants and apprentices), which meant teaching “reading, religion and the laws”, explains Janak.
At home, younger children often learned their letters from what is called a “book of horns”, a thin plank of wood held by a handle with a piece of paper tied to it. On the paper were the alphabet, written in small and capital letters, and the Lord’s Prayer. To protect it from sticky toddler fingers, the paper was covered with a translucent sheet of pressed and polished animal horn (this was centuries before rolling).
“A child would take a piece of velim, which is very thin paper, put it over the letters, and they would trace,” says Janak, author of A brief history of schooling in the United States: from precolonial times to the present day. “That’s how children learned to write.”
The first law directly related to the school came in 1647, when Massachusetts passed the “Old Deluder Satan Act”, named after the opening line of the act (“It is one of the main projects of that old deceiver, Satan, to keep men from knowing from the scriptures…”) The law required that every town of 50 households provide a “little school” (equivalent to an elementary school) and that towns larger than than 100 households provide both a small school and a “grammar school” (a “Latin grammar” or secondary school).
Inside a New England school
Every town in Massachusetts held meetings and voted on how many schools to build (kids shouldn’t have to walk more than a mile or two to get to school), how much public money to use, and the amount that students would pay to attend.
“In colonial times, all schools were ‘public’, in the sense that anyone who could afford to could go there,” says Janek.
In towns in Massachusetts, tuition at a small school was 6 pence a week for reading and an additional 6 pence for arithmetic, according to Old schools and textbooks, published by Clifton Johnson in 1904. In rural areas, produce from the family farm was accepted for payment (barley, wheat, “Indian corn” and peas). And during the winter, each pupil had to provide a bundle of wood for the fire, under pain of being condemned to a fine of 4 shillings.
Small schools in New England were one-room schools filled with boys (and often girls) of varying ages. Children went to school when circumstances permitted, Janak said. They can attend for five or six weeks, then take a month off to help on the farm or in the workshop. Then they would come back and pick up where they left off.
Small schools taught reading, writing, spelling, grammar and basic arithmetic, all infused with a healthy dose of religious and moral instruction. The most popular textbook was The New England Primer (pronounced “primmer”), a paperback volume with roughly carved designs and a rhyming alphabet of Puritan couplets: “In Athe fall of the dam, we have all sinned. “Paradise to be found, the Bevil mind. Students mainly memorized and recited passages, a type of rote learning popular at the time.
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Quill pens and ink were the only writing instruments available, and much of a schoolmaster’s time was spent preparing and repairing quill pens. Students were required to provide their own ink, which was made by dissolving toner powder in water or boiling the bark of swamp maple.
The youngest children, ages five to seven, could attend a “lady school,” an informal school run by an older woman (often a widow) from the neighborhood who watched the children in her home and taught them “the basics of knowledge,” Johnson wrote, in exchange for a “small sum of money.
In New England, high schools were reserved for the wealthy (boys only) who had to master Latin and some Greek to be admitted to Harvard College (founded in 1636) and the seminary.
Schools in the Middle and Southern Colonies
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was essentially a theocracy, and its fervent commitment to Bible literacy is what prompted the government’s interest in compulsory schooling. Outside of New England, colonial governments left the burden of raising children largely to families, churches, and a few private schools for the poor.
In 1671 Virginia Governor William Berkeley wrote that in matters of education Virginians followed “the same course as that followed in England outside the cities; each according to his ability to instruct his children.
In the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware), schools were primarily run by local churches. Janak says there was an Enlightenment influence in the middle colonies, so the program was more philosophical and less theological. Most schools charged tuition, but there were also charity schools (free schools) for the working class and poor.
The Southern colonies presented a geographic challenge as the population was dispersed across farms and plantations. The Southern economy was closely tied to England and Europe, so the wealthier Southern planters hired private tutors or sent their children to study abroad.
Some southern communities pooled their resources to hire a schoolteacher and build a “field school”, a school that literally sat in a fallow tobacco field for a season. When it was time to plant the field, they “put the school on logs and rolled it from one plantation to another,” says Janak.
Colonial teachers and corporal punishment
Qualified teachers were hard to find in the colonial era because there was no pedagogical training or vocational training. “Teaching was first and foremost a business venture,” says Janak. “Anyone who hung a shingle as a ‘schoolmaster’ must do so.”
Apart from the “ladies schools”, the school teachers of the colonial era were almost exclusively men. Some were itinerant teachers who traveled from town to town teaching a single subject or specialty such as arithmetic or calligraphy. “Once they had exhausted the local population, they would leave and go to the next town,” Janak explains.
In Virginia and the Southern colonies, debtors and petty criminals were sometimes “sold” into education as slaves or indentured slaves. “Not infrequently they were rude and degraded, and did not always stay aloof,” wrote Johnson, who found an advertisement from the time: and the game.
George Washington’s first teacher was a slave purchased by Washington’s father, a Virginia plantation owner. “He was a slow, rusty man by the name of Hobby,” Johnson wrote. Hobby was also the church sexton, who swept the building and dug the occasional grave.
Corporal punishment was acceptable and expected in colonial schools. In puritanical New England, beating of students was divinely sanctioned. “The rod of correction is a rule of God necessary at times to be used on children,” read the rules of a Massachusetts school of 1645. “The schoolmaster shall have full power to punish any or all of his pupils no matter who they are No relative or other person living in the place should interfere with the master in this.
In all colonies, the preferred tool for “correcting” misbehaving students was a long, flat-tipped ruler called a ferrule, although a stiff rattan cane or even a medieval-looking nine-tailed cat “n were not unknown”. writes Johnson.
Janak says some colonial schoolmasters have become more creative. “Cage” meant that a disobedient student would be locked in a small cage hung in front of the school, so the whole town would know he had misbehaved. “Cooping” was a worse spell. The wandering student would be forced to lie on his back under a chicken coop for the day.
Even the old lady school widows had their limits. “Most ladies had great faith in a thimble tapped sharply on the skull of the offender,” Johnson wrote. Other students would be required to wear a dunce cap or be affixed with signs reading “Lying Ananias” or “Idle Boy”.