Schools In The 1800s – Insight Into the Life of a Pioneer School Teacher

CULTURE | December 20, 2018

One Room Schoolhouse, A one room school house with the children of all ages, Grand Junction, Michigan, late 1880s or early 1890s. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Historically, American schoolhouses were originally established by churches with the expressed intent of teaching students to read, not so they could go on to enjoy successful and fulfilling careers, but so they could read the Bible. This being the case, many churches were used as schoolhouses, as there was just no funding for a stand-alone schoolhouse. This began changing in the early 1800s. Change began when parents formed what was called, “School Societies.” It wasn’t long before the government got involved and took over the institution and subsequently created school districts.  

Pioneer School Teacher and her Class (readtiger.com)

Children of all ages were grouped together in one room schoolhouses. There was one teacher for the entire group and he/she was charged with tending to and teaching each student on their own level. Teachers had tremendous responsibilities and received very little pay.

During the 1800s, attending school was not mandatory, nor was it free.

The 1800s was a time in history when many Americans were struggling just to provide for the basic needs of the family. Tax money didn’t fund schools, so parents were faced with the reality that if they wanted their children to learn how to read, they needed to pay for it. This was a very difficult decision for many families. Of course, parents wanted their children to learn to how to read so they could read the Bible and be good Christians, however, it often meant that extreme sacrifices had to be made.

Early schools were broken up into two sessions; Summer and Winter.

Young Boys Working in the Field (historyinphotos.blogspot.com)

Schools in the 1800s had a Summer session and a Winter session. The reason being that although children needed to learn, they were also needed to help out at home. Girls and younger children usually attended the summer session while boys were required to help in fields and with harvesting. After the harvesting had been done, the boys then attended the Winter session and the girls helped out with chores around the house.  

Pioneer Children Doing Chores (pinterest.com)

Just because boys helped in the fields and around the family farm, didn’t mean that girls were exempt from outdoor chores. Boys were learning to farm so they could one day provide for their own families. Everyone in the family pitched in to do whatever was necessary.

The Great March Blizzard of 1888(highlandscurrent.com)

Back in the 1800s, there was no public transportation provided for students so many actually walked through high snow and other bad weather, sometimes for a few miles, to get to school during and even after pioneer times.

Teachers were often very young, themselves, with no additional training other than their own schoolhouse education. They were not paid very much and usually boarded with the family of one of their students, sometimes even having to share a bed with them. They also had some strict rules to abide by, some of which are listed below:

• Teachers were required to whittle pencils for their students;

• After teaching students all day, teachers were to read the Bible (in their free time) to stay right with God;

• Teachers were not permitted to drink alcohol;

• Teachers were not permitted to go to a public social hall;

• Female teachers were not permitted to be engaged or married. Male teachers, however, were permitted to court a woman;

• Male teachers were not permitted to go to a public barbershop for a haircut; and,

• Male teachers were responsible for bringing in coal or wood for the stove, to heat the schoolhouse, and for lighting all the lanterns, as well as general upkeep of the schoolhouse.

Corporal Punishment in a Pioneer School (pinterest.com)

Parents stood behind all efforts of the school teachers and supported corporal punishment when warranted.

When students misbehaved, teachers had the authority to hand down corporal punishment and public humiliation as a corrective measure. Teachers often kept a wooden paddle on hand for discipline. In the absence of a paddle, a child might have had to go outside to get a “switch” for his/her own spanking or be required to sit in the corner of the classroom wearing a dunce cap.

Due to a lack of funds, many schools used the Bible as a reading tool when parents couldn’t afford to purchase a “reader” for their child.


School students in the 1800s had very limited supplies at their disposal and often limited space in which to learn. Many families couldn’t afford to purchase age-appropriate reading material for their children, but the Bible was an acceptable substitute. When pencils weren’t being used, pens fashioned out of quills from bird feathers were sharpened to a point and dipped in ink for writing. Slate boards and chalk were also common school supplies in early schoolrooms and erasers were made of sheepskin. Many schools didn’t have desks so children sat on rough, wooden benches all day for their lessons.

Once a child had mastered the skill of reading, often that was the end of their school career.

Children Working on the Family Farm (gumbo.blogspot.com)

Students often didn’t attend school beyond the eighth grade. Once they had learned to read, many students left school to help out full time with the chores at home. Also, many of the teachers didn’t know much more than their students so they had nothing else academic to offer after they had taught a student to read. When it came to necessary hard work, there was no such thing as gender specific chores.  

Tags: 1800s, schoolhouses, education, history

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.