Back to School, Colonial Style


It was back to school this week for the Stevenson boys. In colonial times, boys would generally not return to school until after harvest, mainly during the winter months. While most kids today would savor a few more months of summer break, few understand the hard work that colonial kids would have to do in preparation for winter. Summer break wasn’t much of a “break” for 18th century kids. While boys stayed home to help with farm labor, most girls would return to school sooner than boys. Girls were generally not expected to help with the hard labor of harvest.

In the more densely populated areas of New England, primary schools, usually one room buildings, were open for children to attend. School was not mandatory. However, most early colonists valued education, particularly Puritans, who wanted to their children to learn to read. The three most common school books were, the Bible, the New England Primer, and a Hornbook. One of the primary purposes for school, was to teach kids how to read the Bible. Most Colonial families had one Bible.

New-England_Primer_Enlarged_printed_and_sold_by_Benjamin_Franklin (1)

While the Bible was central to schooling, The New England Primer became the most read 18th century textbook. The New England Primer also had Biblical lessons including the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. Most school lessons centered on recitation of text, with wrote memorization a key teaching tool. The third type of colonial text book wasn’t really a book. Hornbooks were sheets of wood with a parchment attached. A hornbook got its name because it was covered with a thin transparent piece of cow’s horn used to protect the parchment. The parchment was mounted on a wooden paddle and usually listed the alphabet and a Biblical verse. The paddle had a handle with a small hole so that children could tie it to their belts so that they were less likely to get lost.


Colonial Hornbook

In the rural areas of southern colonies, including Virginia, there simply were no schools. Most plantation children were educated through tutors that would come to the childrens’ homes. Even for plantation owners finding good tutors was difficult. For example, George Washington’s schooling was sporadic, at best. Very little is known about Washington’s early education. He may have been taught by a tenant on one of his father’s farms. It’s also thought that he attended the Rev. Marye’s school in Fredericksburg. At some point, Washington learned some math and surveying skills, which he used to his advantage later in life. As with many early American icons, Washington had a burning ambition to learn things on his own initiative. Despite his efforts, Washington always felt his education was inadequate. While his brother Lawrence was sent to England for schooling, Washington was given no such opportunity. After the death of his father, when Washington was only eleven-years-old, Washington had to help manage the family farms. There was little time for any schooling. Thus, unlike other founders, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton, George Washington never went to college. Washington’s schooling ended when he reached age fifteen. Washington lamented the fact that he did not know Latin, Greek or French, all languages of well educated colonists.

The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of public education. Washington and Benjamin Franklin, among others, were key figures in establishing a framework for the existence of public schools. Eventually schools became more common throughout the States. By the early 20th century school would become mandatory for all children, which is a good thing, despite my own kids’ moans and groans about returning to school. If I told them they could stay home to thresh wheat, shuck corn, churn butter, butcher hogs, and mend fences, I’m guessing they would pick school!

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