August 2, 2010

The New England Primer: Colonial School in the Northeast

In the Early Colonial period, religion was the backbone of education.  In 1642, the Puritans in Massachusetts passed a law which used elected members of the colony to oversee  education to make sure that children were receiving an appropriate education and that they understood the laws of the colony. Many colonies followed the model that the Puritans set. 


 In 1647, the Puritans passed the Old Deluder Satan Law which was designed to make sure that all of their citizens were able to read the Bible to protect themselves from Satan. To make this possible, the law required that every town with fifty houses to pay a teacher to teach reading and writing. Also, every town with at least one hundred houses was required to erect a grammar school to prepare boys for higher learning.


By 1683, William Penn made a law which fined the parents of children who could not read and write by the time they were twelve, five pounds. A lot of money back then. While educating slaves was not illegal yet, few were educated. Some African schools were erected by Quakers but elsewhere in the colonies, few were taught. 

Schools during the American Colonial period were typically one-roomed buildings built by communities or churches. School boards were elected by the community and they built the school as they saw fit without any regulations. Each school board chose their own teacher and set their own tuition costs. Teaching was a predominately male profession, with men making about one hundred pounds a year and women teachers only making thirty percent of that. Some schools even had their teacher board at students' houses to reduce financial strain on the teachers. Many students also paid their teacher in foods and other farm goods.

 In the schoolroom, boys and girls had separate benches. The children were of mixed ages and girls tended only to stay for a few years, so they could learn home skills. Since school took place only in the winter and months when children weren't needed on farms, the students were expected to bring wood to feed the fire. It was very rare for students to have textbooks. Normally the schoolmaster had the only textbook. Children typically had a horn-book (pictured top, left,) which was a small paddle of wood which had a lesson printed on it which was then covered by a thin sheet of cow horn to protect the print. Horn-books could be threaded with string and worn around the neck.

Paper was scarce so most work was done verbally. Reading, writing, religion, and spelling. Latin grammar schools for boys only, taught Greek and Latin. Students were expected to memorize and recite their lessons, which were usually a religious rhyme. Copy-books taught nice handwriting, which was considered more important than good spelling as many words of the time were spelled phonetically. 

Learning handwriting by tracing over letters written in a faint ink is attributed to John Locke and very similar to how we teach children to learn to write in modern times.   

*Note: The poem and etchings are from the most popular Colonial textbook, The New England Primer from 1727. Int he late 1700s, the poem was changed to include more religious rhymes and to exclude all references to the King. Etchings of King George II were ripped out of the older Primers during the revolution and few exist today. In future printings, George Washington was printed at the beginnings.  


  1. Interesting post. BTW Mike and I can't visit with you guys tonight...just too much going on. Maybe see you at The Place tomorrow night or catch up to you next week. Sorry about that.

  2. Jodi, It's okay. We know you guys have a lot going on.

  3. Hello Stephanie,

    I wanted to come over and thank you for the sweet note you left on my blog a couple days ago (about the bunnies). From what I've seen so far of your blog, I do think I'll enjoy it. Already became a new follower!

    I was reading your post about the New England Primer... very interesting! I really like studying things about history, so I quite liked this post.

    ~ Tarissa

  4. Our school had two of these hornbooks on display in the school library. In the primary grades I remember making copies with wax paper over the cardboard paddle shape instead of cow horn. I wonder if they still have these or if they've been donated to a museum? I remember teachers passing them around in class- all those sticky little hands! Horrors!

  5. Hi Heather, How neat! I've never seen a real one. I've only seen reproductions. The cardboard horn books are a cute idea. I wonder if they still do that in school?


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