A child’s education was anything but “standardized” during America’s colonial era, which spanned most of the 17th and 18th centuries. The modern institution of the public school—a free, tax-supported education for all children—didn’t get a foothold in America until the mid-19th century.

For children living in the 13 colonies, the availability of schools varied greatly by region—and race. The vast majority of colonial schools catered to children of European settlers who could afford to contribute a fee for their children's education. There were, however, a small number of schools, such as the Bray School in Williamsburg Virginia, that offered education to around 400 free and enslaved African American students between 1760 and 1774. 

The quality of education offered during colonial times was highly variable—even young George Washington was taught by a schoolmaster who, according to an early biographer of the Founding Father, knew next to nothing.

For Puritans, Reading Was a Religious Duty

The Protestant Reformation was founded on the belief that the faithful could commune directly with God by reading the Bible. That’s why the English Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s put a high priority on education.

“Literacy took on a religious element,” says Edward Janak, an educational historian and professor at the University of Toledo. “If you look at the New England colonies, the construction of schools outpaced all other types of buildings. That tells you the value they placed on reading.”

Massachusetts passed the first laws governing education in America. The “Massachusetts Compulsory Attendance Law,” passed in 1642, didn’t require children to go to school, but stated that all Massachusetts heads of household were responsible for the “education” of any children living under their roof (including the children of servants and apprentices), which meant instruction in “reading, religion and the laws,” says Janak.

At home, the youngest children often learned their letters from something called a “hornbook,” a thin wooden board held by a handle with a piece of paper fastened to it. On the paper was the alphabet, written in lowercase and capital letters, and the Lord’s Prayer. To protect it from sticky toddler fingers, the paper was covered in a translucent sheet of pressed and polished animal horn (this was centuries before lamination).

Illustration showing a hornbook in the foreground, and a young colonial boy studying from his hornbook, in the background. The hornbook was a primer for children, often listing the alphabet.
Interim Archives/Getty Images
Illustration showing a hornbook in the foreground, and a young colonial boy studying from his hornbook, in the background. The hornbook was a primer for children, often listing the alphabet.

“A child would take a piece of velim, which is very thin paper, put it over the letters and they would trace,” says Janak, author of A Brief History of Schooling in the United States: From Pre-Colonial Times to the Present. “That’s how children learned to write.”

The first law related directly to schooling came in 1647, when Massachusetts passed the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” named for the opening line of the act (“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures…”). The law required every town with 50 households to provide a “petty school” (the equivalent of elementary school) and towns larger than 100 households to provide both a petty school and a “grammar school” (a “Latin grammar” or secondary school).

Inside a New England Schoolhouse

Every Massachusetts town held meetings and voted on how many schools to build (children weren’t expected to walk more than a mile or two to school), how much public funds to use, and how much the students would pay to attend.

“In the colonial era, all schools were ‘public’ in the sense that anyone who could afford it could go,” says Janek.

In Massachusetts towns, tuition at a petty school was 6 pence per week for reading and another 6 pence for arithmetic, according to Old-Time Schools and School Books, published by Clifton Johnson in 1904. In rural areas, produce from the family farm was accepted as payment (barley, wheat, “Indian corn” and peas). And during the winter, every student was required to supply a bundle of wood for the fire, or be fined 4 shillings.

New England petty schools were one-room schoolhouses filled with boys (and often girls) of varying ages. Children attended school when the circumstances allowed, says Janak. They might attend for five or six weeks and then take a month off to help on the farm or in the shop. Then they’d come back and pick up where they left off.

The petty schools taught reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and basic arithmetic, all infused with a healthy dose of religious and moral instruction. The most popular textbook was The New England Primer (pronounced “primmer”), a pocket-sized volume with rough-hewn drawings and a rhyming alphabet of Puritan couplets: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” “Heaven to find, the Bible mind.” Students would mostly memorize and recite passages, a type of rote learning popular at the time.

Goose quills and ink were the only writing implements available, and much of a schoolmaster’s time was spent preparing and repairing quills. The students had to supply their own ink, which was made by dissolving an ink powder in water or by boiling the bark of swamp maple.

The youngest children, ages five to seven, might go to a “dame school,” an informal school run by an older woman (often a widow) in the neighborhood who kept watch over the children in her home and taught them “the rudiments of knowledge,” wrote Johnson, in exchange for a “small amount of money.”

In New England, grammar schools were reserved for the wealthy (boys only) who needed to master Latin and some Greek for admission to Harvard College (founded in 1636) and the seminary.

Schools in the Middle Colonies and the South

Massachusetts Bay Colony was essentially a theocracy, and its fervent commitment to Bible literacy is what drove the government’s interest in compulsory schooling. Outside of New England, colonial governments let the burden of children’s education largely fall on families, churches and a few privately endowed schools for the poor.

In 1671, the governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, wrote that when it came to education, Virginians were following “the same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his own ability in instructing his children.”

In the Middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware), schools were mostly run by local churches. Janak says that there was an Enlightenment-era influence in the Middle colonies, so the curriculum leaned more philosophical and less theological. Most schools charged tuition, but there were also charity schools (free schools) for the working class and poor.

The Southern colonies presented a geographical challenge because the population was spread out on farms and plantations. The Southern economy was closely tied to England and Europe, so the wealthiest Southern planters either hired private tutors or sent their children overseas to study.

Some Southern communities pooled resources to hire a schoolmaster and build a “field school,” a school that literally sat in a fallow tobacco field for a season. When it came time to plant the field, they would “put the schoolhouse on log and roll it from one plantation to the other,” says Janak.

Colonial Teachers and Corporal Punishment

Qualified teachers were hard to find in the colonial era since there was no such thing as teacher education or professional training. “Teaching was very much a commercial endeavor,” says Janak. “Whoever hung up a shingle as a ‘schoolmaster’ got to do it.”

Outside of the “dame schools,” colonial-era schoolmasters were almost exclusively men. Some were itinerant teachers who traveled from town to town teaching a single subject area or specialty like arithmetic or penmanship. “Once they exhausted the local population, they’d leave and go to the next town,” says Janak.

In Virginia and the Southern colonies, debtors and petty criminals were sometimes “sold” into teaching as bondsman or indentured slaves. “Not infrequently they were coarse and degraded, and they did not always stay their time out,” wrote Johnson, who found an advertisement from the era: “Ran away: a servant man who followed the occupation of a Schoolmaster, much given to drinking and gambling.”

George Washington’s first teacher was a bondsman purchased by Washington’s father, a Virginia plantation owner. “He was a slow rusty man by the name of Hobby,” wrote Johnson. Hobby was also the church sexton, who swept out the building and dug an occasional grave.

Corporal punishment was acceptable and expected in colonial schools. In Puritan New England, beating students was divinely sanctioned. “The rod of correction is a rule of God necessary sometimes to be used on children,” read the rules of a Massachusetts school from 1645. “The schoolmaster shall have full power to punish all or any of his scholars, no matter who they are. No parent or other person living in the place shall go about to hinder the master in this.”

Across the colonies, the preferred tool for “correcting” misbehaving students was a long, flat-ended ruler called a ferule, although a stiff cane of rattan or even a medieval-looking cat-o-nine-tails “was not unknown,” wrote Johnson.

Janak says that some colonial schoolmasters got more creative. “Caging” meant that a disobedient student would be locked in a small cage suspended in front of the school, so the whole town would know they had misbehaved. “Cooping” was a worse fate. The errant pupil would be forced to lie on their back underneath a chicken coop for the day.

Even the old widows of the dame schools had their limits. “Most dames had great faith in a thimble tapped sharply on the delinquent’s cranium,” wrote Johnson. Other students would be forced to wear a dunce cap or be affixed with signs reading “Lying Ananias” or “Idle Boy.”

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