1) If you do not use McGuffey's reader or other 19th century textbooks, now might be a good time for students
to be able to see these and read from some of them.

2) Have children write on a slate with a slate pencil or piece of chalk.

3) Have children try to write with a quill pen or a dip-pen and ink.  Try some of the Spencerian script.

4) Give children some problems from
Ray's Arithmetic

5) If your town's museum or library has old newspapers on microfilm, let students read some of the articles.

6)  If your family has any old documents, show them to your children.


Tutor- a private teacher (once a tutor was usually a man, now it includes both men and women.) A tutor was
also a legal term used in some areas as we would use the term "guardian."

Governess- a female tutor, or private teacher.                                archaic (words)

Cipher- to work arithmetic                                                                telegraph

literate / illiterate                                                                              quill

nib (pen)                                                                                          slate

inkwell                                                                                              primer

telegraph                                                                                         cipher                                                           

Morris Code



Are you home-schooled?   
Do any of your friends go to public school?   
Do any of your friends go to private school?  
Have you ever known anyone who went to boarding school?

Children in the 19th century were educated in many different ways. Some went to common schools. These were
sort of like public schools are today.  Others went to private schools.  Some were taught at home. Some children
never had the chance to learn to read or write.

What might happen if you didn't know how to read or write?

People in the 19th century usually valued the ability to read. Because there was no television or telephones,
most people got their information from newspapers, letters and magazines. It took a long time for these to travel
from place to place; sometimes months would pass before people heard about a war or a marriage!  When the
telegraph was invented, people could finally get news more quickly. The telegraph operator would listen to the
message and write it out, then his messenger would take it to the family.

telephone was not invented until the latter part of the 19th century (Alexander Graham Bell got the credit
for the telephone, but he was not the only person to have worked on such an invention)  and many families did
not have telephones even in the early 20th century.

Of course people at that time did not have text-messaging, cell phones or email.

How did people communicate?  In rural areas, people often had a certain call or loud yell.  They called up their
livestock, and they also might call if they were in trouble.  Sometimes people shot a gun the air a certain number
of times for a signal. Sometimes they rang the farm or church bell.  In some areas, people used horns.

How would your life be different if it took weeks or months for messages and news to arrive?


In the 19th century not all children had the opportunity to go to get an education. If their parents were illiterate
and the family lived in an isolated area,  children might never learn to read or write.  Yet there were many
different types of education available.

Today we have
public schools. Parents do not have to pay for their children to go to public schools; these
schools are supported by taxes. These schools also provide students with books and bus service. The
common schools in the past were not exactly like public schools. At these schools, the students' parents
usually paid at least part of the teacher's salary. Parents also often had to provide firewood or furniture for the
school. Sometimes parents provided a place for the teacher to live. Parents also had to buy books, slates and
anything else the child needed.  Common schools were found most often in the North, but there were a few in
other areas. In the South, some people disdained common schools as "charity schools."  Common or public
schools became more common after the Civil War.  

Some students in the past went to
private schools. There are still private schools today. Some private schools
are run by churches.   Parents have to pay for a child to attend private school. Sometimes the church or
denomination helps pay part of the
tuition, and some private schools took in a certain number of charity
students for free.
  19th century private schools went by a number of names. Some called themselves
academies, others seminaries and others colleges. (This did not mean that they all taught a college-level of

Some students had to live away from home at a
boarding school. They would leave home and go and live at
the school, if there were no schools close to their home.  Some boarding schools were private. At other times, a
student had to leave home and live with a family in town just to go to the public high school there.

A mother or governess teaching a small

Some children were taught at home. Sometimes the parents or older siblings taught the children. Sometimes the
parents hired a man (a
tutor) or a woman (a governess) to come and teach the children. Sometimes the
teacher lived with the family, and sometimes he or she only came during the day.

There was a great variety in the course of study for many students. Boys often had a more rigorous course of
study, especially if they hoped to attend college. In order to attend college, student had to have a working
knowledge or Latin and usually Hebrew or Greek. Boys started college early, however, sometimes as early as
12 or 13.

Girls' educations varied very dramatically. Some girls studied subjects as difficult as their brothers, even
learning the classical languages. Other girls learned the basic subjects along with foreign languages. Learning
French was very common. Some girls mostly learned "accomplishments" such as music, singing or painting.
Some authorities complained that girls learn neither enough academic subjects to fit them for a profession nor e
enough practical skills to help them as wives and mothers.


Paper is cheap and common today, but this was not the case in the 19th century. Paper was often made of linen
or cotton fibers, and was relatively expensive. It is not uncommon to find letters where the writer has filled the
whole page front and back and then turned the paper sideways and written in that direction.

Paper was too expensive for children to waste, so much schoolwork was done on
slates, similar to a small
blackboard. The writing was done with a slate pencil, which was much more precise than modern "chalk."  

Pupils did practice writing on paper, using a
quill pen or a dip-pen. They had to learn to write neatly without
blotting the paper with ink. Some students learned very elaborate forms of ornamental hand-writing, while others
barely learned to form the letters.

In some schools children learned their lessons by saying them out-loud. As different classes were learning
different subjects and lessons, the children might be saying different things!  Each child was expected to
concentrate on his own lesson, though, and be able to answer the teacher's questions when she or he called
the student to recite.

Today we think of many teachers as women, but in the early 19th century, many teachers were men.  Whether
man or woman, a teacher in a rural school might be only a little older than the students he or she taught. Most
teachers did not go to college; they taught just as they had been taught in school.

Discipline in early schools was usually strict. Students were expected to learn and were spanked or slapped
with a ruler if they did not. A child who caused trouble in school, or did not learn his lessons, might expect a
spanking or scolding when he got home that evening.  In some areas, however, older boys enjoyed fighting with
the teacher and breaking up the school.

In the 19th century, schooling was a privilege, not a right. In rural areas, a school might only run as long as the
families could afford to pay a teacher. Sometimes schools only lasted a few months out of the year. When the
school dismissed, students often had to study on their own if they wanted to receive more education, or their
parents might have to send them to a boarding school.


News traveled slowly in the 19th century. Peace treaties were signed and wars declared without most of the
nation even knowing these had occurred. It might take months for a person living in a remote area to learn
"late-breaking news."

Families frequently sent letters to one another. In many cases these were held at the local post office until a
family member came by- sometimes for months. In areas where there was a newspaper, the newspaper might
publish lists of people with letters waiting to be picked up.

Families that could afford it subscribed to the local newspaper. The paper gave the local and national news and
sometimes international news as well. Newspaper-men sent copies of their papers to each other, so one paper
could copy the news from another. Local papers also told about political candidates, people who were sick.,
animals that had been lost or found (estrayed), people who had died or had been married, and other legal news.

Middle-class families might subscribe to a magazine. Many women read the magazine
Godey's Lady's Book.
This was the most popular woman's magazine of the 19th century, and it contained stories, poems, music,
crafts, and recipes. What women often wanted to see most of all, though, were the hand-colored fashion plates.
These showed clothing styles.  Later women's magazines also contained patterns so that women could make
the clothing pictured.

Samuel Morse invented a telegraph in 1836. (Others had pioneered work on this device.) The telegraph
greatly sped up communication. When a person sent a message, the telegraph operator used his telegraph key
to send a message in a series of dots and dashes called Morse Code. The telegraph operator on the receiving
end translated the message, wrote or typed it out, and then his messenger carried it to the family. Telegraphs
were usually only sent in emergences, as they were expensive.

The telephone came later in the 19th century, but most homes did not have a
telephone until the 20th century.
An early 20th Century School
One of the earliest primers in the United States contained the rhyme: "The lazy
fool is whipt at school."  Discipline was often harsh in early schools.
Source: Henry Alexander White, Beginner's History of the US (New York: American
Book Company, 1906)301 at http://etc.usf.edu/clipar
Reading the newspaper.

Holley, Marietta Samantha in Europe (New York: Funk and Wangalls
Company, 1896) 468  at  
June 1867  Fashion Plate from Godey's Lady's Book
Chart of Modern Morse Code
An Early Telephone

Atkinson, Philip Electricity for Everybody; Its Nature and Uses Explained (: The
Century Company, 1903) 222 at http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/
The Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans have
run their girls' school since 1727. This is the
oldest continuously running girls' school in
the United States.

Protestant families living in frontier areas
sometimes had to send their children to Catholic
boarding schools like the Ursuline convent.

A governess coming to teach music
to a wealthy family's children.  She is
ringing the servants' bell.

Governesses sometimes had a hard
life. They might be well-educated but
poor, yet they were often considered
servants and not allowed to socialize.
Coming soon, God willing:  19th Century handwriting.