1850: Schoolgirl Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull

Sepia Saturday 463. Sixth in a series on the early life of my paternal great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, a Union Civil War widow.

While her father Zebulon, 42, was busy circa 1850 with the family farm, his local postmaster duties and dispensing speech therapy from the family home — my great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, 12, had her own responsibilities as a student.

That would have meant attending classes at the nearest one-room schoolhouse with local students of all ages. So what was school like for my twelve-year-old great-great grandmother?

Corbettsville, Broome Co., N.Y. schoolhouse circa 1900. My great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull probably attended a schoolhouse much like the one pictured here. Corbettsville is located right near her Conklin Center, N.Y., hometown. Photo: Source: Ross, Dorothy B. The History of Conklin New York (1989)

The education of rural children

In 1985 the New York State Education Dept. published an informative guide for students and teachers on Researching the History of Your School — which provides some insights into the nineteenth century school experience.

For farm children like Mary, learning took place both inside and outside the classroom. According to the Education Dept. guide, family and neighbors alike helped educate a community’s children.

Only part of the task of education has ever been carried out by the schools. Newspapers, libraries, apprenticeships, churches, and especially families, have been key educators, transmitting knowledge, skills, and attitudes to successive generations. If you were a farmer’s son or daughter in New York two hundred years ago, you might have attended school some of the time, but your family or neighbors would have been primarily responsible for teaching the skills and attitudes most essential to rural life.

New York establishes a common school system

In 1794, not long after independence, New York established a state aid fund to finance a common school system.

By 1812, the fund reached $50,000 through the sale of state lands. And with New York’s population growing, a Common School Law was passed setting up statewide school districts with an emphasis on serving rural areas. The Education Dept. guide says:

This need to encourage education, especially in the less prosperous rural areas, remained a major theme of the State’s educational system well into the twentieth century.

So my great-great grandmother Mary, born in 1838,  benefited from New York’s focus on educating rural children in a formal setting outside the home. And state aid to teacher training programs, starting in 1834, would likely have provided her with an instructor.

A one-room schoolhouse in Troy, Rensselaer, N.Y. (undated). A wood burning stove like the one pictured here would have heated the Conklin Center, N.Y., schoolhouse my gg grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull attended circa 1850. Photo: Library of Congress

The one-room schoolhouse

So what would Mary’s day-to-day school life have looked like? The U.S. Library of Congress ran an educational series describing a typical one-room-schoolhouse like the one Mary probably attended.

A single teacher would typically have students in the first through eighth grades, and she taught them all. The number of students varied from six to 40 or more. The youngest children sat in the front, while the oldest students sat in the back. The teacher usually taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography. Students memorized and recited their lessons.

The teacher’s desk may have been on a raised platform at the front of the room, however, and there would have been a wood-burning stove since there was no other source of heat. The bathroom would have been outside in an outhouse.

Rural outhouse. I can’t imagine that gg grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull had as much fun gossiping and horsing around in her school’s outhouse as my classmates and I did in our elementary school girls room. Photo by bairli1/Pixabay

I chuckled reading about the schoolhouse bathroom. When I think of all the gossiping and horsing around my friends and I did in our elementary school girls room, I can’t quite imagine my great-great grandmother Mary and her classmates having as much fun in an outhouse!

Up next: Back to Pennsylvania for the Blakeslees. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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8 thoughts on “1850: Schoolgirl Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull”

  1. Great as usual, keep up the good work. I have an interesting story about the outhouse. Remind me the next time I see you. Are uou and Amy going to do the rounds on Memorial Day? Perhaps we could do lunch again?

  2. Thanks everyone for your comments. I was also fascinated by the history of public education in New York State. Apparently some of the school districts set up in 1812 are still in existence today, although presumably the schools are more modern with multiple teachers.

  3. The one-room schoolhouse illustrate the energy & importance Education must have had for rural communities.Impressive (albeit cramped ,I guess)

  4. Such interesting information about the early days of public education. I transcribed minutes from the 1871-1905 School Board Minutes in Greene County, Virginia. They were much later getting started than your folks in New York.

  5. My two grandmothers were farm girls who only got a limited education, 5th /6th grade at one room schools. And yet both had clear neat handwriting and were prolific writers of letters, cards, and lists.

  6. There was a 2-room school house in the small community in which we lived when our son was ready for public school and I was amazed at how well the kids there were taught. K-4 were in one room, 5-8 in the other. But since the students could hear what was being taught to all the children in their particular room, they picked up on everything that interested them and most were learning things at several different grade levels.

  7. Fascinating to learn more about the one-room schoolhouses. Those teachers had to be amazing to handle all those ages.

  8. Nice post on early schools and education. I am always amazed at the lengths some of my ancestors went in providing education for their children. Nice post.

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