School Life

Views about Education

Expectations at a Young Ladies' Academy
While education is considered to be a very important part to a happy and successful life today, few people saw it that way in the 1800s.  Education was a luxury only rich people could have and important citizens sent their children to either private or church schools.  The upper class saw no reason for farmers, lumberjack, regular merchants or their children to know anything more than the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic since they did not make important decisions for the country.   On top of that, boys were usually the only ones considered for education since girls were expected to become wives and mothers, therefore education was not considered essential for them at all.  In fact, daughters of the rich were often sent to "ladies' academies" so that girls could study housekeeping, needlework and how to be the woman of the house.  Eventually, basic reading, writing and mathematics were integrated into the curriculum as women fought for the right to learn.

Schooling in Upper Canada

Even though settlers had been coming to Upper and Lower Canada throughout the 1700s, it was not until 1807 when the first grammar school was set up in each of the eight districts. (A grammar school would be known as a high school today.)

one-room schoolhouse
The teachers were clergymen from the Church of England and they taught English, Greek, Latin, history, geography, writing and arithmetic.  Since all of these grammar schools were located in a town, it meant that rural children did not get a chance to attend unless their parents could afford room and board in town - an impossibility as farmers needed to invest what they could into the crops that they were growing.  In 1831, there were 311 students that attended grammar schools at a time where there were over 200,000 children under the age of 16.  

A frustration developed so farmers and small town folk decided to provide a solution.  They created their own schools - usually a settler's home, general store or the town church to start until an individual schoolhouse could be built.  The people in the rural areas would build their own schoolhouse, pool money together to pay for a school teacher and have to provide their own school supplies.  The earliest schoolhouses were basically a one-room log cabin with a wood-burning stove, some student desks, benches and a desk for the teacher.  Students usually sat in twos and threes or worked at a big table.  It was a dirt floor and the windows were usually covered with greased paper.  

slate and slate pen
There were very few textbooks which the students shared in school.  There may be a blackboard but paper and pens were scarce.  In fact, students mostly used slates and slate pens as it could be reused and saved money. When students were needed at home, they did not attend school.  Before 1816, parents were responsible for making contributions to help with the expenses of the school but that changed in 1816 when the government helped to offset some of the costs by providing grants to help pay for the teacher's salary and for additional textbooks (including spellers and readers).  Students were still expected to bring wood for the school's stove and their own school supplies.  However, supplies started to change from slates and slate pens to paper, ink and quill pens.  

Until the late 1800s, most teachers were male but women quickly proved that they were equally capable of doing the job.  Teacher salaries were between $15 - $30 per month (male teachers receiving the higher amount) but many women entered the teaching field because of the opportunity to start a career and not for the very low amount of money.  Rural teachers often began teaching at 16 years of age.  

Egerton Ryerson
In 1844, Egerton Ryerson became Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada and spent considerable time researching different models of education in Europe and the United States.  In 1846, the first of three School Acts were passed which revolutionized education in Upper Canada and laid the groundwork for the school system we have today. Amongst the recommendations he made. included:

  • the overall control of the school system become the responsibility of the Chief Superintendent
  • one curriculum with set standards be formed
  • the training, inspection and examination of teachers needed to be established
  • specific textbooks were selected and distributed (preferably written by Canadians)
  • every school needed a library
  • time was set aside annually in every district for professional development
In the late 1840s, board of trustees were created to raise money, provide teachers, supply textbooks and report to the district superintendent on a regular basis.  In the 1850s, land grants were secured so that universities could be established and allow the education system to further grow.  The University of Toronto opened in 1849 which allowed students to stay in Upper Canada to get a university education instead of traveling to Britain or the United States.  

In later years, education was paid for by school taxes; schools became free and mandatory for both boys and girls. From this point forward, including today, children were required to attend school up to the age of 16.

Schooling in the United States

Note:  much of the information provided below has been obtain, in part, by the website

A brief explanation of how education developed in the United States is available below.  Keep in mind that this development happened primarily in the original thirteen colonies later named the United States of America.  By 1800, only the following states were a part of the "United States" and progressing in the manner described below, including:  New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  

Colonial Times
In the 1600s, upper class children received some education in reading, writing, simple mathematics and prayers.  They recited their lessons until it was memorized as paper and textbooks were scarce.  The most commonly used books, at this time, were the Bible, a primer and a hornbook (a teaching aid that consisted of the alphabet, the ten digits and the Lord's Prayer mounted on a wooden tablet and protected by a thin plate of horn).

Here is an example of an early 1900s primer.

Once the children got older, grooming for their roles on the plantation became necessary.  Boys continued their education in academics and girls learned the duties of mistress of a plantation.  Only rich white male students received a higher education with the use of a private tutor.  A typical day would involve schooling starting at 7 a.m. with several breaks throughout the day (including lunch and dinner).  Studies would include higher level math, Greek, Latin, geography, history, science, celestial navigation (navigating ships by the stars), fencing, social education and the eventual management of the plantation.  Wealthy plantation owners would eventually send their sons to England for a university education (including law and medicine).  In 1636, Harvard was built for higher education so that students did not necessarily have to go to England for higher level education.  It was followed by the College of William and Mary in 1693.  Meanwhile, included in the duties of learning how to be a mistress of the plantation, girls would study art, music, French, needlework, weaving, cooking and social etiquette.  Children of poor families did not receive a formal education but often took apprenticeships which lasted 3 - 10 years to provide them with a lifelong skill to survive in the colonies.

18th Century
There were still few schools in the 1700s.  Most upper class parents either taught their own children to read and write at home using a bible and a hornbook or primer, or used a private tutor.  Some wealthy children used quills dipped in ink to write on a page and sprinkled pounce (a powder-like sand) to help prevent the ink from blotching the page. 

Early primers used animal pictures to help children learn how to read and write.  The attempt was to show how reading and writing was a natural process and fairly easy.  By the mid-1700s, literacy rates (percentage of people who could read and write at a basic level) had greatly improved in New England colonies but did not in the Middle and Southern colonies.  However, they still had the same approach to education - only the wealthy boys continued to higher education and wealthy girls learned about the duties of the household while poor children received whatever education they could from their parents (poor boys continued to become apprentices).  Children of farmers were educated at home and the Bible was the most common source of the teaching.

English grammar schools were developed in the 1700s in response to the need from middle-class businesses to have a secondary education that would provide practical instruction in many subjects to prepare them for the growing workforce.  Later in the 18th century, these schools became more flexible in allowing women to attend where they were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, dancing, French and training to be a Lady.  At the same time, the academy was a new type of secondary school that developed where Latin and English grammar schools were combined by having separate departments in one school.  The academy schools were private and only wealthy boys were allowed to attend.  Classical subjects were included (unlike the English grammar schools) and, later on, the academy became the most popular type of private secondary school.

Higher education continued to grow with the founding of Yale University (1701), Princeton (1746), Columbia (1754), University of Pennsylvania (1755), Brown University (1764), Rutgers University (1766) and Dartmouth College (1769).

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson popularized the idea that a democratic society required enlightened and educated citizens which helped the cause for education reformers in the early 19th century.

19th Century
During this century, education went from being private for the wealthy to something that was available for the common masses.  Many refer to this period as "The Common School Period".  After the American Revolution, education was available to everyone.

With education reformers like Horace Mann (Massachusetts) and Henry Barnard (Connecticut) helping to create statewide common-school systems, the Common School movement looked to increase opportunities for ALL children and tried to create common bonds in an increasing diverse population.  Education reformers argued that education could help preserve social stability, prevent crime and lower the poverty rates.  Advocates to the Common School movement tried to establish a free elementary education that was accessible to everyone while being financed by public funds.  They felt that public schools should be accountable to local school boards and state governments.  

Common schools became an important function in American society since they:
  • were a good way to "americanize" all foreigners immigrating to the United States
  • the belief that when more people were educated, the more productive they could be
  • standardized education with the use of textbooks like McGuffey Readers
During this century, the Industrial Revolution was becoming more and more of a reality.  While farming was still a predominant part of American life, industry was quickly moving into the United States and people needed to have a certain level of education to work in the upcoming industry.

McGuffey Readers
In 1833, Rev. William Holmes McGuffey was asked to write a school textbook for Truman and Smith Publishing.  He designed a series of readers which also included two primers and a speller.  The first book contained 55 lessons and the child modeled in the book was prompt, truthful, good, kind and honest.  The readers reflected McGuffey's own personal philosophies, represented the country's morals and helped shape the American character.  Students were encouraged to practice the standards of morality and society, as outlined by McGuffey, for more than a century.  Not only did they deal with children's natural curiosity, but encouraged the importance of religious values, an allegiance to the country, emphasized good work habits and an independent spirit.  The McGuffey Readers presented a variety of viewpoints on many issues and topics while commenting on such moral principles like:
  • lying 
  • stealing / cheating
  • teasing
  • alcohol
  • poverty
  • gluttony
  • skipping school
  • foul language
The books encouraged children to seek out education and emphasized the importance of lifelong learning despite the fact that they were very moralistic in tone.

Click this hyperlink to see actual pages from the McGuffey Readers at the bottom of the webpage.

Secondary Schools in the 19th Century
Even though English Grammar Schools and Academies were established in the 1800s for the wealthy, education was not available to anyone else at the secondary school level until the early 19th century when public high schools were developed as a public education alternative.  This happened in developed towns and cities to help further encourage growth of more educated workers.

Schooling Outside of the Original 13 Colonies
Despite the changing views on education for children in the United States, it really only applied to students living on the east coast of the country.  Only 17 states had joined the United States of America by 1800 and the rest of the country had yet to be fully settled.  Pioneers were still moving westward to take advantage of land opportunities or the Gold Rush.  There was no room for education reform in these undeveloped parts of the country.  Early settlers relied heavily on one room schoolhouses to educate their children much in the same manner as pioneers in Upper Canada for most of the 19th century.  This is where there was a lot of similarity between the one room schoolhouses and the teachers responsible for the education in Upper Canada and Mid-West or Western United States in the 19th century.
Most of the United States still needed development

Some Facts About One Room Schoolhouses
  • Teachers were given a very low pay and often roomed with families in the area or in a room attached to the schoolhouse.
  • Grades fluctuated every year and so instruction changed according to the number of students in each grade.
  • Younger students sat in the front and older students sat in the back.
  • Students sometimes walked up to 5 miles (8 km) away to get to school.
  • In some cases, boys and girls entered through separate doors and had separate lessons.
  • The school year was shorter back then than it is now - students attended school for about 132 days compared to the 180 days now.  However, unlike today, students were helping out on the farm when not in school and it was hard work.
  • Attendance was dependent on what was happening on the farm, especially during the busiest months in the Spring and Fall.
  • School in the United States schoolhouses typically started at 9 a.m. and ended at either 2 p.m. or 4 p.m. (depending on the school).  In Upper Canada, students typically went to school a bit earlier (more like 7 a.m.).
  • Students would get one 15 minute break and an hour for lunch at noon.  
  • There was no physical education taught but students were active after eating lunch.  Teachers basically taught the 3Rs (reading, writing and 'rithmetic) in the beginning.  It was many decades later that teachers started to include history and geography.
  • Some of the games that students would play during the lunch hour included hide and seek, blind man's bluff, baseball, ante over, dodge'em, drop the handkerchief and work up.
  • Depending on the amount of students in the schoolhouse (in some cases, there were as many as 60 students for one teacher), the teacher had the older and stronger students help teach the younger or weaker students some lessons (called the Lancasterian or monitorial system).
  • Students often had to memorize their lessons and recite them to the teacher for assessment.
  • Discipline was very strict.  Even though there was the possibility of detention, suspension or expulsion (as there is today), students could also receive corporal punishment in the form of a lashing with a leather strap or a switch (a flexible branch) either on the hand or on the buttocks of the student.  Students acting up in class could also be asked to sit in the corner while wearing a dunce cap (a large cylindrical hat made out of paper with the word "dunce" on it).
  • The youngest children were called Abecedarians (pronounced a-ba-ka-da-ree-ans) since there primary job was to learn their ABCs.
  • Lunch was not provided by the school but students were expected to bring their own in a metal lunch bucket.  (More about what students brought to school for lunch is available under the heading "A Pioneer's School Lunch")
  • Most students left after the eighth grade (which most families figured was enough education for the small towns or farms) and if they wanted to graduate, they had to pass a final exam.  
Want to see what a final exam in 19th century school looked like?  This is an example of an 8th grade final exam from the United States.

A Pioneer's School Lunch

Students would carry either a cloth bag wrapped around their school lunch or they would bring a metal lunch bucket.  The food came from either the farm or the personal garden.  A student might bring:
  • cold meat
  • muffin
  • homemade bread
  • jam
  • cheese
  • hard-boiled egg
  • pickles
  • preserves
  • celery, carrots or other seasonal vegetables
  • pears, peaches, apples, plums or other seasonal fruit
  • oatmeal cookies / gingerbread cookies
  • a mason jar filled with milk or apple juice
Water was provided from the well at school and sometimes the teacher would make a big pot of stew or soup as a treat for lunch.

School Rules for Students

In order to establish a routine and manage the classroom, it was necessary for students to follow the rules established by the teacher.  Here are some rules that the students would have to follow:
  • Respect the Schoolmaster (or Schoolmistress).
  • Do not call your classmates names.
  • Do not disturb your neighbours as they work.
  • Do not leave your seat without permission.
  • Ask for permission to go to the outhouse or leave the schoolhouse.
  • Obey and accept punishments immediately.
  • Only one student may be excused at a time.
  • At the end of class, you must wash your hands and face.
  • Enter and exit the classroom in a quiet manner.
  • If your name is called at the end of school, it is your turn to straighten the benches, tables and desks, sweep the floor and leave everything tidy before leaving.

Rules for the Teacher

Students were not the only ones that had to abide by a set of rules.  The schoolmaster or schoolmistress also had a set of rules that were provided by the board of trustees or community leaders after accepting the position of teacher at the schoolhouse.  Teachers were expected to be virtuous and have high morals.  They needed to keep the schoolhouse clean

Some of the rules that a teacher might be expected to follow would include:
  • filling the lamps and cleaning the chimney every day
  • bringing a bucket of water and scuttle of coal (or logs of firewood) for each day's lesson
  • sweeping the floors at least once a day
  • scrubbing the floors once a week with hot water and lye soap
  • starting a fire an hour before students start school
  • (female teachers) would not wear a dress with a hemline higher than two inches (5 centimetres) above the ankle and avoid bright colours
  • attending church each Sunday and either teach Sunday School or sing in the choir
  • using the remainder of their time reading the Bible or other good books after spending 10 hours in school
  • putting aside a goodly sum of their earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden to society
  • (female teachers) would not be allowed to marry or keep in the company of men during the term of their employment (if they married after a term was completed, they would not be able to return to teach but would be expected to take care of the house)
  • (male teachers) would be allowed one evening off per week for courting purposes; two evenings if they went to church on a regular basis
  • (female teachers) would not be allowed to get into a carriage with any man unless it was a brother or father
  • (female teachers) if engaged in any unseemly conduct, would be dismissed immediately
In addition, if a male teacher was seen smoking, drinking liquor, seen frequenting a public hall or even getting a shave at the local barber shop would have to give a very good reason "to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honest" to explain his behaviour.

Any teacher who performed their duties faithfully and without fault for five years could expect an increase of 25 cents per week in his/her pay as long as the trustees or community leaders approved.

Additional Resources