How Public Schools Worked in the 1800s
Education was one of the most important priorities for a new nation. This video from PBS depicts a typical classroom in the 1800s.
In cities, wealthy businessmen set up schools using the Lancasterian model, where a single teacher gives rote lessons to hundreds of students at once.
Mann pushed the idea that public schools should be free and mandatory, and instill democratic political values. He hoped that such schools would produce responsible citizens.
In 1778 Thomas Jefferson drafted legislation for public education in Virginia. His bill was not carried through Congress. Most Americans at this time favored private school ventures and local control of education. They were concerned that a government-sponsored school would indoctrinate young Americans with the beliefs of a particular faction.
In his plan, Jefferson advocated schools that would teach the principles of morality, reading, writing, and arithmetic. He also hoped that education would help develop a republican system of merit that could replace feudal practices such as entail and primogeniture. Jefferson believed that schools should be tax-supported and open to all free children. He envisioned a state-supported educational system that included elementary schools in hundreds of wards, district schools, and college-level institutions. He also envisioned that city schools would be governed by an annually elected council of citizens. He believed that this arrangement would ensure that the school board was comprised of ordinary citizens, not a gentry clique.
Horace Mann was a prominent Massachusetts figure who pushed for public education. He argued that education would help alleviate class conflict, circumvent anarchy, promote civic engagement, and inculcate moral habits. Mann also advocated that schools should be open to all and supervised by the state. He authored several books and founded the Common School Journal, which successfully spread his ideas. He also traveled extensively in Europe to learn about established educational principles, including the Prussian school system.
During his career, he also sat on the legislature and led the State Board of Education. He firmly believed that reading, writing, and arithmetic were essential for every citizen and that the state should be responsible for their instruction. He also emphasized that students should receive instruction by professional teachers rather than parents. In addition, he promoted age-grading, which eliminated the need for multi-aged classrooms. He also encouraged teachers to speak in a clear and coherent manner and stressed discipline.
One-room schools dotted the landscape across America throughout the 1800s. These small wood buildings were where children received all of their education in a single room, usually for first through eighth grade. Depending on the school district, there could be a few to many students in a class. Most children in rural areas walked to school. The teacher lived in a separate building known as the teacherage, which was often attached to the schoolhouse. Female teachers were more likely to be billeted with a nearby family.
Students spent much of their day studying at their desks. They learned their lessons, ranging from the usual reading, spelling and writing to geography, grammar, and arithmetic. They were also taught physiology and the importance of abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The teachers did their best to keep the students busy, calling them up to recite and asking questions. They were expected to learn their lessons and to pass examinations in order to graduate from eighth grade.
School lunches started in the 1800s with philanthropic organizations who wanted to improve children’s nutrition. They developed meals that provided balanced calories to ensure maximum learning potential. These meals were not offered to every child, but only to those who could afford them. Homeschooled students usually ate lunch with their family, while urban and rural schools would allow them to either travel home for lunch or bring a packed meal from home.
In Philadelphia and Boston, welfare groups started to offer hot lunches for a penny. The meals were prepared in central kitchens and then transported to participating schools. This was a revolutionary improvement for children, especially as child labor laws prevented them from leaving the classroom to eat a meal.
Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough to lift all students out of poverty. Today, many schools still discriminate against students by shaming them when they can’t afford to pay for lunch. This stigma is incredibly damaging and can last a lifetime.