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?
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.
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.
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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