Going to School in 1776 by John J. Loeper, 1973.
“The grass is green,
The rose is red,
When I am dead.
This is a non-fiction book about what it was like for children to go to school around the time of the American Revolution. The quote that begins the book, a short poem, was written by a real girl from 1776 in her copybook. The book’s introduction says that it was included to remind readers that, “History is not just facts. History is people.” Part of the purpose of the book is to remind people about the lives of ordinary people, of real children, making history come alive in a way that mere recitation of important names and battle dates never can.
The book explains some basic facts about the Americas in 1776 and what led up to the Revolutionary War. Then, it begins discussing what it was like to be a child at the time in different parts of the American Colonies. The colonies were largely rural and even major cities were not the size that they are today. However, there were differences in the ways families lived and the type of education the children received, depending upon where they lived and if they lived in towns or in the countryside.
These explanations are told in story form, rather than simply explaining listing the ways children could live, learn, and go to school, trying to help readers see their lives through the eyes of the children themselves. The children’s lives are affected by the war around them. As the book says, many town schools in New England were closed during the war, so the students would attend “dame schools” instead. A dame school was a series of lessons taught in private homes by older women in the community. In other places, such as cities like Philadelphia, official schools were still open. Discipline was often strict, and school hours could be much longer than those in modern schools. Sometimes, children would argue with each other over their parents’ positions on the war.
Some schools were similar to modern public schools, open to all children of a certain area and operated by the town fathers. Others were church schools and included religious lessons. Families with money were more likely to send their children to school than poorer families, who could not always afford tuition, although public schools would not always charge the students an extra tuition fee because the schools were funded with local taxes. These systems varied throughout the colonies, and poor children in the South were less likely to be formally educated. Wealthy plantation owners would open schools for the upper class children, and lower class children might receive lessons in “field schools.” The field schools were just occasional, informal lessons given to the children in the fields by any adult who happened to be interested in the task.
Teaching in schools was not easy. Sometimes, teachers were itinerant, moving from one school to another and finding work in agricultural areas between the growing seasons, when children would be free from chores to attend school. Some teachers were even indentured servants, forced to remain in the employ of a person to whom they were indebted, often because that person paid for their passage from Europe to the Colonies.
There were different standards for what girls and boys were expected to learn because their learning was guided by what they were each expected to do with their adult lives. A typical school might teach boys subjects like, “writing, arithmetick [sic], accounting, navigation, algebra, and Latine.” Generally, “reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion” were common elementary school subjects. Latin lessons and other advanced subjects were typically for boys who planned to become lawyers or clergymen. Girls were likely to receive little formal education beyond reading and writing, and black people were less likely to receive even that.
Of course, not every child went to school. There were other ways for children to learn, depending on what they expected to do with their lives. Apprenticeships were common. Boys would go to live in the house of a person with a particular profession and learn that profession from the master. Aside from basic training for a profession, the master would provide room, board, basic necessities such as clothing, and training in the “three Rs”, which were “reading, ‘riting, and reckoning.” In return, the apprentice would provide his master with his labor for a period of time.
Girls could also serve apprenticeships, although theirs were more focused on the domestic arts because most of them were expected to marry, and they often married young, about the age of sixteen. Beyond reading and writing, girls would also learn practical skills such as various kinds of needlework and also music and dancing. The book describes in some detail the various types of needlework a girl could learn and the materials they used. Typically, girls would create a “sampler” to show off all the stitches they’d learned, kind of like an apprentice’s master piece or a certificate of completion done in cloth. Unlike modern “samplers”, these would not be just cross-stitch alone because the idea was for the girl to demonstrate her skill and versatility, and using only one stitch would not impress anyone. Commonly, the sampler would include the alphabet and the numbers one through ten, which would all be done in cross-stitch (which was the basic embroidery stitch), but there would also be an inspirational quote, message or Bible verse, the girl’s name and the date of the sampler’s completion, and other decorative embellishments, which would be done in other stitches such as tent stitch, eyelet stitch, chain stitch, and French knot. There could be as many as twenty different types of stitches in a single sampler, depending on the girl’s skill and what she had learned. Girls hoped to do at least as well as their mothers in terms of the number of stitches they knew and skill in execution.
There are also sections in the book which describe the lessons that children learned, the types of school books they used, discipline in the classroom, ways children liked to have fun, and types of clothing that children wore in 1776.