Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Schooling of the 1860s

Posted By on March 26, 2012

For general background on schooling during the 1860s, see these articles:

Teachers during this time period were looked upon as having a responsibility to shape the character and souls of their students as well as offer instruction in basic subjects. Teachers also had almost complete latitude as to what to teach and how to teach it. Local school boards might suggest subjects or a curriculum but the actual structure and teaching of the schoolday was left up to the teacher.  The table below was taken from Theory and Practice of Teaching by David P. Page, published in 1858. It shows a suggested school day schedule for mixed grade classes in an elementary school. The students are divided into four groups (A, B,C,D). The Recitations column is the group of students working with the teacher and the Studies column indicates what the other students are working on independently at their seats.



















Because of the agricultural nature of most parts of the country, students went to school for a shorter part of the year than now. The school year typically ranged from after the harvest time in the local area in the fall until just before planting time in the spring. Compulsory education laws did not come about until later in the nineteenth century, so students generally went to school for fewer years, and some students did not attend school at all. Parents would keep their children out of school to help with specific chores when necessary, which could range from a couple of days per school year to weekly help with chores such as laundry.

Subjects commonly taught, in the order they were typically introduced:

  • Reading, Spelling and Defining
  • Mental Arithmetic
  • Geography
  • History. “Perhaps no greater mistake is made than that of deferring History till one of the last things in the child’s course,” says Mr. Page.
  • Writing. What we would call penmanship or handwriting  “may be early commenced with the pencil upon the slate… but the writing with the pen may be deferred until the child is ten years of age, when the muscles have acquired sufficient strength to grasp it.”
  • Written Arithmetic.
  • Composition.
  • Grammar, as Mr. Page puts it, “should be one of the last of the common school branches to be taken up. It requires more maturity of mind to understand…”

No doubt other subjects were taken up by certain teachers in certain places based on his or her own interests, knowledge and ideas of what was important.


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