October 1993

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Rural District Schools

Their Books and Teachers


Robert G. Koch

Dotted across Western New York are deserted or converted one-room schoolhouses. "Most of the [district school] buildings were erected close to the highway, and they encroached on the adjoining field very little," according to Clifton Johnson in his history Old-Time Schools and School-Books. "A favorite situation was at the meeting to two or more roads, and sometimes the building would be so near the wheel tracks that a large stone was set up at the most exposed corner to protect the structure from being injured by passing vehicles. The schoolhouses seldom had enclosures or shade trees, and the summer sun and the winter winds had free play."

If placement of the early 19th-century single-classroom schoolhouse was the product of frugality, so were its furnishings and staffing. Plain rough benches and writing tables accommodated students through the ages and grades. Often older students were ranged along the outside walls, with younger students in ranks in the center of the room. The teacher's elevated desk closed in the open end. A wood stove usually provided the only heat. Closeness to it was valued on winter mornings, but after a while students nearby sought relief from the heat by asking to take the more removed seats of students who had been envying them their earlier placement.

Blackboards—those ubiquitous classroom symbols-were in fact not common in district schools until about 1820. The walls often showed weather and smoke stains. Perhaps a portrait of George Washington or a map was displayed. Instruction was by voice, by book, and by writing, with, of course, quill pens that frequently needed sharpening. Most early teachers were male, many of them probably in the lineage of Ichabod Crane. From his Sleepy Hollow schoolhouse, wrote Washington Irving:

[T]he low murmur of his pupils' voices conning over their lessons might be heard in a drowsy summer's day, like the hum of a beehive; interrupted now and then by the authoritative voice of the master, in the tone of menace or command; or, peradventure, by the appalling sound of the birch, as he urged some tardy loiterer along the path of knowledge. When school hours were over he had various ways of rendering himself both useful and agreeable. He assisted the farmers occasionally in the lighter labors of their farms. He laid aside, too, all the dominant dignity with which he lorded it in his little empire, the school, and found favor in the eyes of the mothers, by petting the children, particularly the youngest; and he would sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot for whole hours together.
In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing master of the neighborhood, and picked up many bright shillings by instructing the younger folks in psalmody. It was a matter of no little vanity to him, on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson. Thus, by divers little makeshifts, the worthy pedagogue got on tolerable enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it.

"Generally," according to Clifton Johnson, "the teacher was young, sometimes not more than sixteen years old; but if he was expert at figures, if he could read the Bible without stumbling over the long words, if he could write well enough to set a decent copy, if he could mend a pen, if he had vigor enough of character to assert his authority, and strength enough of arm to maintain it, he would do."

Toward mid-century more might be required of the teacher. Besides the standard subjects of reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography and grammar were often algebra, even a little Latin or French. What was accomplished? Johnson's answer is that despite "...all this broadening in studies and all the advances in school-books, and in spite of the correct English the books were supposed to impart, the scholars in their daily conversation continued to use the vernacular. Had they been reproved for so doing, they would have felt affronted.

"One handicap to effective teaching was the fact that it might happen no two pupils were equally advanced in their studies—possibly did not have the same text-books. The books were often much worn and defaced, for they were family heirlooms and continued in use as long as they held together. One scholar would bring a volume used by some member of the family of the preceding generation; another a book procured many years before for an elder brother or sister, and a third would appear with a copy just bought."

That these "family heirlooms" were valued is evident from flyleaf inscriptions that have been recorded.

Steal not this book for if you do,
Tom Harris will be after you.


Steal not this book for fear of strife
For the owner carries a big jackknife.

Some took a less direct approach:

Whosever steals this
Book away may
Think on that great
judgment day when
Jesus Christ shall
come and say
Where is that book
you stole away
Then you will say
I do not know
and Christ will say
go down below.

One book valued perhaps above all others and which, in fact, had a tremendously positive effect on the nation was Noah Webster's pioneering spelling book. As with his later dictionary of the American language, it was a powerful force for stabilizing a written language that was in topsy-turvy transition from the English of the former mother country and the centrifugal force of local dialects. Webster sought simplicity and consistency. "Hitherto," Johnson points out, "the spelling in the different text-books had been far from uniform; and in letters, records, and other manuscripts of the time there was a curious variety of word construction. Even men of high education often spelled the same word in several different ways; but Webster presently became the American standard and brought order out of chaos."

Next time we will examine how he did it.

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR