Nature Bulletin No. 283-A November 18, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt.
Our big city schools and our modern consolidated schools in the smaller
rural communities are so familiar that we are apt to forget the crude
one-room schoolhouses where our forefathers learned the 3 R's ---
readin', writin' and 'rithmetic -- and the part they played in our national
history. In the Middle West, in pioneer days, people were too busy
clearing land for fields, draining swamps, building roads and struggling
for bare existence, to think much about education. Besides, children
were needed to help tend crops, do the chores, and help their mother.
Although the Ordinance of 1787, which created the Northwest
Territory, decreed that a square mile of land -- Section 16 -- be set aside
in each township for the support of its schools, the first free tax-
supported schools were not established here in the Middle West until
about a hundred years ago and, because of the hardships of the Civil
War, did not become widespread until the 1870's. Since most of the
population lived on farms or in small towns, and because transportation
was very difficult, the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher was the
that time, many of our ancestors learned to read and write, if at
all, from their own parents or from part-time teachers, called "masters",
who were paid a small amount for each child and boarded around, in
turn, at the homes of the pupils. Generally, the teacher was a young man
studying for the ministry or the law; or a young farmer or laborer who
arranged to teach in some vacant building for several weeks during late
fall and winter. In many cases, the discipline was harsh and whippings
were common. Sometimes the older boys whipped the teacher. Most
children, like young Abraham Lincoln, had only one or two years of
schooling. School books were very scarce. In addition to reading,
spelling and penmanship, he sometimes taught a little arithmetic --
The first free school was often a log cabin with a fireplace and a dirt
floor, built by the parents themselves. The teacher had a pulpit-like desk
at the front and the pupils sat on split-log benches along the sides.
Later, when they could afford a frame building with a floor, it was
heated by a big pot-bellied wood-burning stove in the center, and the
children sat at long desks. Lessons were prepared on slates, framed with
wood, and written with a squeaking slate pencil. They were erased with
a damp piece of sponge tied to the frame with string, or by spitting on
the slate and subbing it with one's sleeve. The early pens were made of
goose quills, and the ink from dry ink-powder. Paper was scarce.
In colonial times, spelling was not standardized and even well-educated
men often spelled the same word in two or three different ways on the
same page. Noah Webster prepared an American speller long before he
did his dictionary, and spelling became one of the most popular
pastimes. Both grownups and children took part in "spell downs' at the
school or in winter evenings at home. There were few readers until the
50's when McGuffy's readers became widely used. There were contests
in mental arithmetic, reciting the multiplication tables, and ciphering
matches at the blackboard. On Friday afternoons, and at the end of each
term, prizes were given for the best recitation of poetry and for the best
piece of oratory. Formal debates between older pupils, or adults, were
very popular and the subjects usually chosen were such controversial
questions as "Flood is worse than Fire", or.
Resolved: That the Pen is mightier than the Sword.
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Update: June 2012